The world of Gonzales is a fascinating one: full of humour and hard work, amazing metaphors and nice melodies, rap bars and twisted beats. In this interview, he tells us a little bit about everything, plus some on point political thoughts.
Not many rappers or electronic musicians release solo classical piano albums. Not many solo piano albums sell over 100,000 copies. Not many pianists are able to perform for a (world record) twenty-seven hours straight, only playing original material with no repetition or assistance from stamina-enhancing chemicals. Not many world record-breaking solo pianists have released songs where they rap about possessing a third testicle. Not many Canadian Jews have held press conferences where they declare themselves “King of the Berlin Underground” while flanked by a puppet in a stovepipe hat.
Chilly Gonzales, real name Jason Beck, seems to revel in contradiction. An ostentatious rapper who is capable of composing subtle, delicate piano pieces. A wild, unpredictable showman whose every move seems meticulously plotted. A self-deprecating egotist. An inveterate weed smoker with a mind as sharp as an ice-pick. A Europhile who revels in taking the piss out of the place he calls home (on the track “I Am Europe” he hilariously describes the continent as “an imperial armpit sweating Chianti”). A man who’s equally inspired by Erik Satie and Rick Ross. A brilliant lyricist whose bestselling work features no words.
He’s produced his own self-funded film “Ivory Tower”, playing a retired chess champion who invents an anti-competitive, avant-garde alternative to the game dubbed “jazz chess”. He’s released the “world’s first orchestral rap album”. He’s collaborated with artists as diverse as Drake, Peaches and Jarvis Cocker. So it’s no wonder he proved an incisive and entertaining interviewee when we called him at his home in Cologne, Germany...
"I think for me the music would never be enough"
Should I call you Chilly or Jason or...?
As you like. Most people call me Gonzo, but I'm used to the confusion.
You're very much associated with the piano. Were you forced to learn to play the instrument as a kid or was it something you picked up naturally?
I had a Grandfather who introduced it to me when I was aged around 3 or 4 I guess. It didn't feel forced, I took to it very quickly. I think it was a nice escape for me. He had some very euro-centric ideas about music, he thought Richard Wagner was god. [Then I began] to watch MTV, probably around age 7 or 8, and started to think, “OK, I don't think Richard Wagner is god, I think Lionel Richie is god”. So I kind of always had the two parallel strains: I had the strict European view of music and then I had the much more North American view of entertainment, and in a way I'm still trying to turn one into the other today.
Your act tends to come across as a combination of those things. Do you focus a lot on trying to provide an entertainment experience as well as a musical one?
Yeah, I think so. I think for me the music would never be enough. Using humour as a counterweight to the depth of the music, I always felt that was a good combination, and I think in the people that I enjoy listening to, there was always more... Like, I loved Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Morrissey and people who I felt were, in a way getting revenge by becoming pop stars. And later on I found the same quality of revenge in rap music. So right away I was always attracted to these slightly villainous, complicated personalities, and I need that, I needed that much more than just the simple, earnest musician. I needed to find that complexity and needed to speculate unto their motivations, and to this day it's still one of the reasons I love rap music so much - they're very complex portraits of the modern entertainer.
"You can only maintain a persona when it's pretty much an edited and exaggerated version of your real contradictions"
You talk about music as a form of revenge and a way to escape, what is it that you're taking revenge on/escaping from?
Oh, how long have you got? I mean, you know, it's a cruel world and music is a great balm for people, whether they listen to it or whether they make it. I think I'm definitely not alone in thinking that I use music as a way to prove myself to people who underestimated me. I have a song called ‘The Grudge’ in which I try to make clear that the majority of entertainers, anyone who gets up on stage or signs a record contract, is somehow getting revenge, you know? But I always preferred people to wear that on their sleeve. I think the idea of suppressing the competitive and vindictive side that gets us onto a stage and gets us out of bed in the morning and makes us work and write songs – any musician who tries to suppress that, for me, does so at their own peril. The ones that admit it, and turn that into the story of their music, I think are the ones that will last. I think those are the most complex and therefore the most fascinating people. Most people, I think, share that slight megalomaniac side. I put on a front, like the way rappers do, like my favourite eighties singers used to, but the ones who suppress it and pretend it doesn't exist, they're the ones who bore me.
Morrissey is a pretty good example of that, actually. His persona plays a big part in the fact that he always gets a huge amount of press no matter how good or successful his recent output has been.
Because the persona is based on truth, and a real contradiction that exists for him, and if you just create a persona out of nothing you won't be able to maintain it. You can only maintain a persona when it's pretty much an edited and exaggerated version of your real contradictions. That's why I'm still standing after fifteen years of Chilly Gonzales, whereas at the beginning it might have seemed like nothing but a pose, but I think people can see there's a real tension between feelings of needing the audience and wishing that I didn't and all that. It's all in there, it's all in the songs, it's visible onstage and I think that's why I'm still doing it. You can't just put on a cowboy hat and say you're a cowboy, you know?
Your character in 'Ivory Tower' seems to be fighting against the things you're talking about – there's a line about how in Azerbaijan they see ambition as a disease...
Well, that's right. The reason I could play [Hershel, the protagonist in ‘Ivory Tower’] so well is because that's maybe naively who I thought I could've been, maybe twenty years ago before I was able to say, “You know what? This is who I am and I'm gonna make it part of what I do”. In a way I'm playing my worst nightmare in that movie: a complete idealist who's completely suppressed any idea that competition can be positive. But at the end of the movie he's kind of come together with his brother, played by Tiga of course, and they kind of find a third way, where you're artistically ambitious and ambitious in terms of wanting renown and all the other trappings of success. That can all work together, you know? That's the lesson of rap music – it's not a battle between art and commerce, they actually complement each other when you do it right. So that's, you know, a lesson that a lot of classical and jazz and indie rock musicians haven't quite learned, but you get it a lot more in rap music and to a lesser extent is some electronic music. And so I'm definitely on that side of the fence, I think they work together. I don't think you have to choose between being a pure sell-out and being a pure idealist, there really is a third way in the middle.
"Any kind of expectation or rote stereotype, I'm interested in trying to work against that"
It seems like the concept of 'selling-out' is kind of losing credence these days, people don't get as bothered by it now as much as they used to.
It reached its summit in the nineties, and luckily has been falling off ever since. Now we have a bit of a hangover from that but overall I agree, it's been proven by the way the rappers do it and the way the pop stars do it – it’s clearly winning out. There's no more talk of the 'guilty pleasure' or whether it's right to sell your music to advertisements. As soon as the actual recorded music industry section of what we do died, most people were pretty quick to realise you couldn't stay in business without making a few compromises here and there.
Often the people who complain most about selling out are the people who are quite comfortable to begin with. If you need money you're maybe less likely to worry about it so much...
Well that's why the entertainer's lifestyle solves all those problems. The entertainer is about his audience, and so an entertainer thinks, well, my audience wants me to be able to have money in order to invest in projects and make things like the “Ivory Tower” movie - which I paid for myself because I don't like to take government money and be in the system of waiting for grants, I'd rather depend on what the audience thinks of me. The way I see it, if the money is coming from my audience because they're coming to my shows then it's not tainted money, and they would much rather that I continue. I have my own label, I have employees, I don't take government money, I do ambitious things like play with orchestras once in a while, make movies, wear extremely expensive bathrobes onstage – they want me to continue doing that. So I really don't see a problem. You really don't have to look at it like a battle between purity and dirtiness, there really is a third way and it's called 'thinking of your audience'. That takes away the whole battle. That battle doesn't exist any more when you're about your audience.
"In rap music it's kind of a true meritocracy: the best rappers tend to be the most successful ones"
Are you tempted to get involved in the whole Kickstarter thing?
No, I mean... luckily I haven't needed to. I don't know so much about it, I don't know how realistic it is. I've seen friends of mine do it here and there and, er, hey, if that really is based on the fans contributing and it's actually efficient and you can do things efficiency-wise, time-wise and money-wise then I guess it's great. I'm in a good position, I haven't felt the need to do that. I came up in the late 90s/early 00s and, if I were starting out 100% from nothing today, that might have been my only chance to get known. I'm not really sure. Luckily I'm one generation removed from relying on that.
On ‘The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales’ you make a point of denying you're a “left-wing singer songwriter”. Do you find that people assume you'll be left-of-centre simply because you're a musician (and one who's worked in some pretty niche areas)?
Yes. Any kind of expectation or rote stereotype, I'm interested in trying to work against that. More importantly, I think that you shouldn't apply politics to music, in the sense that music is not a right. It's not an essential thing like clean air or housing or healthcare. In these kinds of debates you have to apply the idea that people are entitled to things, and in that sense that probably puts me somewhere leftward of the average. But I don't think music is a right. In a way, some of the right-wing rhetoric you might hear I think strangely applies well to music, because it's not a right. For example, I don't take grant money, I don't think it should be the government's business to decide which artists need help over others. I believe, in a way, that the free market does work when it comes to music. I don't think that the free market works when it comes to access to healthcare or access to housing or all the other issues – I'm not well-versed on those issues but my tendency will be to say, yes, those are people's rights, figure out a way to make it happen. When it comes to music, I think it's one of the few areas where a kind of capitalist approach, the idea that the customer is always right, I think it works, and we see that in rap music. In rap music it's kind of a true meritocracy: the best rappers tend to be the most successful ones. It's very rare that a rapper becomes extremely successful and he's not considered one of the best. It's rare. It happened very briefly in the nineties when maybe Vanilla Ice became big, but when was the last time there was a rapper really at the top of the game and was considered not a good rapper?
Maybe 50 Cent?
No! Hey, during his heyday, look, the market has spoken, because four or five years ago Rick Ross beat 50 Cent in a very famous battle and we haven't heard from him since. So the market washed him out when his time was done. But for the five or six years that he was dominating the rap game, every great rapper was imitating him. He had a huge influence, he was completely respected, you know, he was one of the first to popularise the whole process of using mixtape saturation to get noticed, and since then all the rappers took a page out of his play-book and are putting out free mixtapes with exclusive material over and over again.
So if you're applying free market principles to music, the onus is on you the performer to maintain a high standard, especially now there's so much free access to other music...
The market will wash you out! 50 Cent beat Ja Rule because Ja Rule was taking it a bit too easy, and then Rick Ross beat 50 Cent because 50 Cent was taking it a bit too easy. Inevitably someone will come and knock off Rick Ross but he's had a pretty good longevity in the game because he's taken it very seriously. But what I wanna say is that nobody accused 50 Cent of being a bad rapper till about four or five years ago, and look what happened. He's having no more success. So that just proves my theory that when you're at the top of the game you're considered the best rapper.
Your attitude towards state funding is particularly interesting because you're Canadian, and Canada seems to put a lot of money into funding and supporting bands and musicians.
I just think that the money they give directly to these artists would be better spent giving it to educational programs. I'm not saying take the money away, I'm saying put it somewhere else. The argument of giving grants is that the audience doesn't know what they're doing, there are things that are worth hearing that the audience doesn't have access to or doesn't, uh, actually wanna hear but deserves to be heard, which is a very strange argument when you think about it. So if your idea is that the public doesn't really have taste that's 100% trustworthy then do something about it! Educate people! I agree that people's taste could be more sophisticated, I'm 100% in agreement with that. So it's a bit of a complex argument. I don't take funding because in the end I feel like it slows me down, but I'm not saying everyone has to do that. I'm lucky, music is one of the art forms that's easy to produce on your own and, like I said, it's different if maybe you're in a different sector of the arts where it's not very easy to find your audience. It’s particularly easy right now for anyone to produce an album and slowly find their audience, so musicians have an advantage. Especially pop musicians, I should say. But, um, in general I think, yeah, people's taste should be a lot better, but you do that by educating people, not by giving a failed 45-year-old artist who makes something unlistenable more money.
So you would channel that money into music education for schools.
Absolutely. Arts education. That includes everything. That includes Hector Berlioz and South Park. Everything.
"Harmony is the most under-used part of modern music, so if anything I would say harmony has become my main lane of music"
There's a lyric on ‘Gonzales Uber Alles’, well more of a rant really, where you tell people to “write a fucking melody for once”. Do you think that melody is undervalued in modern music?
It's true, I did say that. I don't think it's undervalued but I think, um...it's easy to have a lot to say with rhythm, instinctively. Melody is a little bit more difficult but you can still do it by instinct, you can be, like, a killer top line writer without having much musical training. I would revise that to say that harmony is the most under-used part of modern music, and gives me my most distinct advantage because it's something that has the most emotional effect but definitely requires some training to deploy properly. So if anything I would say harmony has become my main lane of music. If there's a distinct Gonzales sound, whether it's one of my electronic songs or a solo piano song, it probably has something to do with the harmonic story being told, that I specialised in when I was studying music and have since realised really is my secret weapon, if I have one. Along with my sense of humour, probably harmony is the thing that gets me paid and gets me across the most.
Yeah, I was going to mention the humorous aspect of your music. Even in your solo piano work there are some comic moments, how do you manage to inject humour into instrumental music?
I think humour can be literal but it can also be really kind of baked deeply into the music as well. It could be a sort of wistful humour, it could be a slight moment of detachment in a moment where one would expect more engagement or commitment. Humour is essentially about the unexpected so I think it's very easy to be deeply humorous without making a joke, without having to be, you know, a sweaty guy in slippers or whatever. Which is one way of being humourous in a more literal way, actually making jokes onstage, doing unexpected things on stage. But yeah, it can also be just the way I play a certain note or leave something out, for example, or exercise a bit of restraint where one wouldn't expect it.
One accusation that might come from using humour a lot and being quite self-referential is that you're trying to make sure that you don't appear to take yourself too seriously...
Well, it's a pretty strong cliché that comedians are extremely sensitive to timing and very, very studious of audience reaction. I think most people who use humour, you can't really find a lot who take themselves any more seriously. Let me put it this way, I think contradictions are important in music and so I want to get across a certain level of musical sophistication and musical depth, and I think I use humour and the idea of not taking myself seriously as a counter-weight to that, so you get a complete picture. But I'm not necessarily out for people to think that I don't take myself seriously. I take the craft of music very, very seriously, the craft of performance, the craft of building a media narrative, marketing, all of that I take very seriously, otherwise I wouldn't bother doing it. In terms of what the people get when they come to see a show, I think it has to have a mix of sincerity and detachment, absolutely.
Were you surprised when your first solo piano record was so successful?
Absolutely. I mean, I had maybe dreamed of it but wouldn't have let myself really dream that the piano could become my absolute main weapon and best friend in becoming a man of my time, you know? For a while the piano was in there, the harmonies were in there, but I was more focused on the persona and the humour that I thought was the connection to my generation. So I was kind of focusing on that and letting the piano and my musical genius, so to speak, be hidden in what I did to a certain extent. And when ‘Solo Piano’ came out I realised, OK, I can still be a man of my time, this isn't going to work against me at all, this can only work for me, and that's when I really resolved, OK, well let's put the piano in the centre, and that's really where it's been since then.
It also led to your successful world-record attempt...
Well it led to everything. When Drake asks me to write songs with him he wants me to be there at the piano coming up with harmonies, and harmonies that will inspire him. I'm not making beats with him, I'm not there chopping it up with a fellow rapper, I'm there very much as a piano player. When Daft Punk asked me to come in as a session musician it was the same. So it's always the piano that it comes back to. So yeah, the world record was about centring on that as well. What other human being could do that for twenty-seven hours, just on the piano? That was the lesson of ‘Solo Piano’ basically: I'll never be photographed again without a piano in the background. People think of me as being attached to my piano for all intents and purposes.
Luckily it's a strong look.