Chilly Gonzales

Alexandre Isard, Arts and Crafts



Chilly Gonzales rarely allows an interview opportunity to pass without describing himself as a "musical genius," a "musical capitalist," or a "man of my time."

It's the Canadian piano player's vainglorious way of explaining that he relates better to the accessibility of modern pop music and the competitive attitude of hip-hop - his favourite genre - than the cloistered elitism of classical music's ivory towers.

Growing up in Montreal, Gonzales (born Jason Beck) acquired both an ear for the European classical masters and the shameless ambition of a pop musician. He spent much of the nineties toiling away in the Canadian music industry, but achieved little success. Disillusioned, he moved to Berlin in 1999 with his pal Peaches and became well-known for as cartoon-ish and conceptual electro rapper.

In 2004, he brought his classical training to the fore with Solo Piano, an album of instrumental piano recordings that traded his cerebral and sardonic rhymes for earnest emotion. The piano would become central in career thereafter, including his production work on Feist's acclaimed albums Let It Die and The Reminder.

In the eight years since Solo Piano, he has created a concept album and chess film Ivory Tower, recorded the orchestral rap album The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales and collaborated with Toronto MC Drake on the song "Marvin's Room." Apple used the Ivory Tower track "Never Stop" in its iPad launch commercial and in 2009, he claimed the Guinness World Record for longest solo piano performance with a concert that lasted 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds. That same year he challenged rocker Andrew W.K. to a piano battle at Joe's Pub in New York City.

This year, the 40-year-old returned to simpler delights of the piano on Solo Piano II (Arts & Crafts), an album of gentle melodies, whimsical runs and frisky jazz flourishes recorded over 10 days in a Paris studio. As he puts it in the liner notes: "Although they say the piano can create the most colours of any instrument, it is actually black and white, much like an old silent movie."

To find out what's next for Chilly Gonzales, MSN rang up the piano impresario in a recording studio in Cologne, Germany, where he was busy helping Pulp main man Jarvis Cocker on the music for a forthcoming HBO project, to chat about Solo Piano II, the rap world's most counter-intuitive MC and the indie rocker he wants to crush in his next piano battle.

Why did you decide to do a sequel to Solo Piano?

I think that's obvious. It's the album that has the most power. There's something about the purity of Solo Piano that, after I released it, it blew me away at how the connection with people who liked it seemed to be deeper than people who liked my previous work, which was more conceptual and electronic. It seemed with kind of music that people would like it and in six months they had forgotten about it. Solo Piano kept on getting deeper with time.

Although many people can make humourous, conceptual music, maybe there aren't many people these days that can credibly sit down with one instrument [and perform]. It doesn't get much purer than that. So I realized [Solo Piano] was something very powerful and I should be conscious of the fact that one day I will come back to it and feel confident enough to compete, in a sense, with the first Solo Piano album.

The songs on Solo Piano II are very short, like songs on a pop album. Why did you decide to take that approach?

I grew up watching MuchMusic like all of us. In general, a classical or jazz album often misses the mark by not acknowledging what our attention span is these days. I have no problem with the fact that I have the same attention span as everybody my age and yet I love so much about the sad touch when I hear it on instruments, and I love so much about the colour of classical music. It's just natural to pour that into the mold of what pop albums are today, which are short albums and short songs with very clear structures. I'm trying to be a man of my time, and playing seven-minute songs that meander would be disingenuous.

Later this month, you're going to give a talk in Toronto at the Glenn Gould Variations music conference about the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould's "counter-intuitive" approach to his classical career. What about his approach to his classical career do you relate to?

Glenn Gould is one of the few iconic Canadians but before he came along it was very difficult to imagine someone like Glenn Gould. He's a true original. I compare him to John McEnroe. People didn't imagine that someone like John McEnroe could exist in tennis. You couldn't imagine someone like [the chess player] Bobby Fisher before he came along. I'm not one of those people. I'm a fan of those people, and to a certain extent I pretend to be someone like those people.

The lesson of someone like Glenn Gould is to be yourself. He avoided playing romantic music, which was unthinkable for a successful classical pianist at the middle of the century. He focused only on the most modern music and the most antiquated music - the bookends of music history. He retired from concerts entirely and brought classical music up-to-date with technology by using multi-track recording techniques.

If you enumerate the rules he broke, you end up in the twenties and thirties -it was a huge rule-breaking behaviour so he's a great inspiration. In many small ways I can emulate that and take some of the risks in relation to the world I come from, which is indie rock or electronic, whatever world I happened to find myself in.

You're a big fan of rap music. Are there are any rappers that have a counterintuitive approach to their craft and careers?

Rap itself as a style of music took the idea of authenticity differently... so the last rapper I can think of who did that in a small way was Rick Ross, who challenged the idea that your back story has to be real. He got into a famous battle with 50 Cent who was considered the "real" rapper for having been shot and having a credible gangsta life story. Rick Ross is openly delusional. One of the verbal formulations Rick Ross uses - he was the first to do it - is to say 'I think I'm this, I think I'm that.' He would say, "I think I'm Escobar."

Previously to that, rappers would generally say, "I am Escobar," "Consider me Escobar" or "I'm like Escobar." Rick Ross was the first to say "I think I'm Escobar," so he was the first to really admit he only thinks he's a coke dealer. He doesn't actually try to pretend that he's one. He was famously caught having been a prison guard, which is I guess about the least real you can be, and he survived that by musically destroying 50 Cent.

He could sense what people like about rap is the fantasy aspect, the revenge fantasy, and 50 Cent had overestimated that his own reality was what attracted people to him. So he lost that battle, and we haven't heard much from 50 Cent the last few years. Rick Ross pretty much took over the rap scene. I don't know if time will bear out that he is the Glenn Gould or John McEnroe of rap, but he certainly has some of that counter-intuitiveness.

Hip-hop is often driven by conflict and competition between artists. Do you like that aspect of the music?

Very much so.

Why?

Competition is a great motivator for creativity. That was always the case. There were court battles back in the days of J.S. Bach, who famously had a battle with an emperor, which he was forced to throw because of course he had to let the emperor win. There were cutting contests in jazz music, blues music and "walking the bar" where saxophonists would have battles by literally getting up on the bar and walking on it, trying to outdo each other. There were piano battles in the time of Jelly Roll Morton. There is a great piano battle scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck.

In general, the world I come from could use more of that. It's a very polite world. I've tried to have piano battles with different keyboardists. Very few of them want to participate out of politeness and for fear that they will be seen to be as too ambitious perhaps.

Why do you think you haven't been more successful in the United States where that competitive attitude is more prevalent?

I'm playing European music with a North American attitude. The colours of my music are European and classical colours. I play with a jazz punch, but because I grew up watching MuchMusic, I have the attitude of a pop musician, and that is something that Europeans and Canadians, by virtue of being half European, can feel. To Americans it's tougher. I might have to reshape my approach.

My parents were both born in Europe and came back pretty quickly after they had to leave because of the war. Thirty years after I was born I went back into the belly of the beast from whence they had to leave Germany and [said], "This is your music. This is what you have wrought, Europe." Except now I've grown up in a distant land where we see things differently and fundamentally I'm a musical capitalist and I'm a child of pop.

That statement resonates with the Europeans and to a lesser extent, in Canada. That's the reason it's had so much success in Europe, middling success in Canada, and virtually none in America. Maybe it's because I don't stand out as someone who's competitive in the world that I'm in. Perhaps I'm just not aggressive enough for the Americans. They like it raw and the sophisticated musical parts of what I do are a bit lost on them apart from the bigger cities, because they lack sophistication in their culture.

Is there anyone you would like to crush in a piano battle?

Do you know the [British rock] band Muse? The lead guitarist, keyboardist and singer is called Matt Bellamy, and he just professed that his keyboard style is influenced by Chilly Gonzalez. He's a really great performer. He's super arrogant, super confident, and somehow I thought that could be a nice moment. I have just enough respect for him to want to crush him.

Have you issued a formal challenge yet?

I have not. I just found out about this actually. The other guy I would maybe want to challenge is Jamie Cullum, who is a piano-based entertainer. There is a guy named Jools Holland who used to play in that band The Squeeze, and he's become a TV personality. He plays boogie woogie piano. With him it's more like I'd like him to quit.
The last piano battle I had in North American was with Andrew WK. He's been like a professional wrestler in his genre, a little bit cartoonish, but also a really deep musician. He was the perfect candidate so I was thrilled to kick his ass... That guy is just the greatest and we have our open appointment for a rematch, but first he has to get a bit better, and I'm sure he knows he's maybe the only person worse than me at it.