Chewing on the Stereogum Interview

StereogumT. Cole Rachel’s interview with Gonzales is a captivating read. Admitting that Solo Piano II was his “most played” record of 2012, Cole goes on to elicit detailed comments from Gonzales. It appears that Cole is more than happy to prod from time-to-time, letting Gonzales’ train of thought run its natural course. According to Cole’s biography, apart from being an experienced NY-based music-related journalist, he is also an author of two books, a DJ, a music supervisor, and a part-time bartender!

Some highlights and analysis:

Cole observes that Solo Piano II can serve as the ‘gateway drug’ for people looking to delve deeper into classical. Gonzales is more than happy to ‘be that drug’. For some listeners, Gonzales’ piano music may be an introduction to the world of classical music, which is great, but the Solo Piano recordings do stand apart from classical piano recordings. They weren’t written 150 years ago, which means that they incorporate current styles, even though people are constantly trying to form a comparison between Gonzales and Eric Satie and other classical composers. The same is true for recordings such as “The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales”. Again, the classical orchestra sound is used in a manner more in-keeping with current musical trends, but still retaining the emotional power of a full orchestra.

In answering Cole’s question about why Solo Piano II, Gonzales says that before Solo Piano, he created “hidden piano records”. This can be readily observed in albums such as Über Alles, Presidential Suite, and Soft Power. The piano is either lurking in the background – adding to the dynamics, or front-and-centre. Another great quote is, “Any success I’ve had has generally been by accident, and has been a bit counterintuitive.” The word “accidental” seems odd here. Gonzales puts his best effort and talent into every second of every album and concert, so the only accidental part is how others discover how good his music and talent is. In listening to prior Gonzales interviews, one has the distinct impression that Gonzales himself is constantly surprised at which ventures did well, and which weren’t as successful. On the “accidental” success of Feist, Gonzales indicated that he was surprised that Feist’s level of success didn’t happen to many talented people he knew. The same adage can be applied to other aspects of work and life; try your best at what you are good at and passionate about. Then, take some chances – the rest is pretty much out of your hands anyway. Isn’t that how most of the large internet companies became successful?

Cole asked Gonzales how it felt to work in so many different musical genres. Ever-modest, Gonzales seems to deflect credit for successful albums (e.g. The Reminder, Ivory Tower) and absorb blame for less successful ones (e.g. Soft Power). Here, Gonzales may being a bit modest in stating that he’s not an electronic producer; listening to Über Alles, one has the distinct impression that his electronic producing skills have been honed through years of practice (not to discount Boys Noise’ co-producer status on Ivory Tower). It is interesting that Gonzales’ Solo Piano albums are his most successful, but also his most megalomaniacal!

On the success of Solo Piano, Gonzales explores the rarity of true ‘solo artist’ albums, indicating that it’s something that not many people can do in the pop world. As for the stress of recording Solo Piano II, Gonzales states that he essentially has “Three minutes to tell a story convincingly or not.” That a lot of stress – especially when you know the world is listening! The insight into the internal dialogue that Gonzales has while recording Solo Piano is fascinating. Don’t think about how good a take is, because that will break your concentration and ruin the take! If anyone was following Gonzales’ tweets during the recording of Solo Piano II, they were in sharp contrast to his tweets when he was recording Metals with Feist. For Solo Piano, there were leg cramps and shoulder pains, buzzing pianos, and a few other things that made it seem like a very difficult process. For Metals, it seemed like every day was a new and interesting adventure in Big Sur California (without access to technology until the end of the day, apparently). The contrast in the recording process may underscore Gonzales’ comments on how much more fun it is to record with a team.

Revisiting the topic of being an entry point for delving into classical music, Gonzales indicates that he is now able to offer two piano records to every hipster! The battle of verse/chorus, verse/chorus was definitely won some time ago, but Gonzales is still able to reach into the likes of John Zorn, Bach, etc. and find inspiration in more loosely structured music, package the best parts up, and present it as a wonderfully consumable 3 minute pop package. Our brains are wired in such a way as to respond to certain harmonies; many theorists consider music a ‘super-stimulation’ of our sensitive speech processing. The “hundred years of harmony” resulted in the music we listen to today in a fairly easy to trace evolution. The best and most popular is able to live on and inspire future generations, and the thousands and thousands of mediocre songs have just faded into obscurity. Gonzales certainly wants his music to live on to inspire other musicians to continue this evolution.

“Music with fancy chords” is a great quote; isn’t appealing to the currently generation of music fans the best way to keep music alive? How many of us have purchased a net-new classical composition that was released this year? The vast majority are re-hashes of tried-and-true standards with something to add, but generally only for the musical elite (read: snobs). The aspect of sampling classical music for desired effect is a concept that Gonzales has mentioned in past interviews – something to the effect of, “I sample from long dead composers who can’t sue me.” That comment may have been based on “Let’s Groove Again” back from “Über Alles”, which has a chord progression lifted from a Shostakovich string quartet.

Cole indicates that Gonzales has amazing collaborations, and Gonzales appears to have a vast internal sample bank of harmonics and harmonic progressions. Gonzales’ secret weapons are humour and harmonies, and he uses both to great effect.

Gonzales also gives us a glimpse into 2013 and beyond: taking the orchestra kicking and screaming into the present (and future). For Gonzales, this seems like a natural progression, but as we’ve seen, Gonzales’ path is rarely straightforward. The meld of old and new is something that hasn’t worked all that well for orchestral arrangements; possibly most successfully with Bernstein and Copland. Many others have produced music that is interesting, but not for mass consumption. Then again, many of those composers didn’t have an opportunity to rap, record hip-hop, and MC. If Gonzales’ track record is any indication, his future compositions are sure to make a dent in the classical world.

Cole’s full Stereogum interview can be found here.

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