Prankster rapper, orchestral hip-hopper, producer, classically trained composer and pianist: With more than a decade of dizzyingly diverse music behind him, Canadian bathrobe enthusiast Chilly Gonzales has remodeled the concept of the Renaissance man for the computer age. “I said I was a musical genius/ I repeated it ’til it became meaningless,” he rapped grimly on “Self Portrait,” a dark night of the soul from last year’s The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales, “Because you assumed I was joking/ And then you thought about it, like, ‘He’s not joking’.” More proof of deathly serious intent comes with his latest album, Solo Piano II. A collection of elegant nocturnes and black-and-white atmospheres, it shows that 2004′s Solo Piano was more than just a traffic-stopping handbrake turn in one of modern music’s most compellingly curious careers.
Victorial Segal spoke with Gonzales about self-expression, self-improvement and who he’s playing to these days.
You recorded the album in a studio in Paris. As someone who seems to enjoy collaborating with other artists — Feist, Peaches and Drake, for a start — was it a lonely experience?
The title really says it all, you know? The solitude is baked into the cake. It’s conceptually tight so you realize that you’re hearing a photograph, an audio photograph, of what happened during those two-and-a-half minutes. There’s something very pure about that. There’s no Frankenstein element. If I’ve got it and I like it then it tends to be on the album. If I don’t have it, I have to start from scratch, to go back to find a coherent version that works from beginning to end. It’s man versus himself. When I was learning what makes literature interesting when I was teenager, it was man versus nature, man versus society or man versus himself. This is clearly man versus himself.
Do you enjoy that particular battle?
I think people who know me know I’m a pretty competitive musician. I’ve done a couple of piano battles and I’ve even broken a world record [for longest solo concert in 2009, when he played for 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds] — so I thought that kind of pressure would bring out the best in me. They used to give medals for music in the Olympics until the ’40s. If you read biographies of great composers you often find they’re extremely competitive: There were rivalries between Liszt and Wagner, Brahms and other composers. You had Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney engaging in a lot of competition. What inspires me these days is rap and that’s really competitive and more of a meritocracy, where who sells the most is the generally the best. Indie rock is very polite. But classical music moved extremely fast because they were always trying to outdo each other. Rap today moves extremely fast.
So while people might think a man at a piano is a genteel prospect, you’re actually saying it’s red in tooth and claw?
If you’re into hardcore self-improvement — and I am — then, yes, you have to take it very seriously. A lot of musicians, I call it the “Oops I’m good” syndrome — they want to make it seem like an accident they even ended up there. If you’re a dentist you go to school to learn how to be a dentist and hopefully be the best dentist you can be.
You’ve worked in several musical genres. Do you have several distinctive audiences?
I do have two or three different groups. I was held aloft by the underground when I first started. I was a piano player by training, but I wanted to be a man of my time. I didn’t want to stay in my ivory tower. I thought, Okay, well first I have to connect with “real people,” as I call them, and I did that mostly through my sense of humor, and that’s what really makes me a man of my time. And then slowly, I brought in the musical element. With that first solo piano album in 2004, suddenly there were some fans from that classical and jazz world which was very encouraging because I thought that was the ivory tower, the museum world of music. The underground people know a lot more about me, so they’re less shocked when I can veer towards the vulgar on stage. Some people who only got into me through the piano music, they’ll come to see my show and all of sudden be a bit shocked when I go to that surreal, Andy Kaufman-type performance. A few people walk out but mostly people are along for the ride. I wouldn’t do any of the clowning around if there wasn’t the piano there. I’d just be a guy with a silly name wearing a bathrobe. Luckily I’m not. Luckily, I’m also there as a musical genius.
Do you feel you’re blurring the lines between high and low culture? Are you fighting against musical snobbery?
I think snobbery is a good thing. When I hear music badly played, I will dismiss it. I think what you’re referring to isn’t actually snobbery, it’s fear. It’s that people who go to the ballet and the symphony and the art gallery are often actually scared they’re not going to understand pop culture. Likewise, people who are into pop culture and have a more disposable attitude to music have a fear that were they ever to delve into more substantial forms, they wouldn’t understand it. In a way, I’m there to assuage their fear. Barriers are there for a reason: stylistic barriers are great. I think it’s great dance music is based on “boom boom boom boom” 4/4 drum beat, I think it’s great hip-hop is based on certain codes in the lyrics. I’m not trying to erase the borders, I’m trying to get people over their fear. When people go to see classical concerts these days, often the artist is scared the audience will reject them and doesn’t make an effort, so the audience feel left out sitting in a cold symphony hall thinking “Wow, I paid 80 bucks for this. I guess this is high culture.” Everybody’s scared, nobody’s enjoying themselves, it’s a disaster.
So you’re saying audiences need to relax?
“No, it’s also the artists aren’t good enough. I take full responsibility for making an audience relax, trying to get rid of that fear and take them somewhere. That’s my responsibility.”