Early Gonzales: Anthony Michelli on Chilly

Gonzales recently said that his early musical career was a “roller coaster” – presumably it travelled at a high rate of speed, was simultaneously thrilling and scary, with lots of ups and downs (and you had to be strapped in to survive the ride). We recently had a chance to sit down and discuss Gonzales’ early days in his band ‘Son’ with someone who was in the same coaster car – the original drummer from Son – Anthony Michelli. Anthony certainly corroborates the ‘roller-coaster’ metaphor, and reviews from a television appearance at the time indicated that ‘Son’ was “too crazed to even fit in the TV screen.”

How did you meet Gonzales?

Well, I knew Dave [Szigeti – A.K.A. Taylor Savvy, Daddy Szigeti] from years ago – he was from Burlington, Ontario and ended up in Toronto; we lived in the same home for years, and that was where we would get together and rehearse and play. People like Alanis [Morissette] – who was a friend of Brent Bodurg – my other room mate who recorded my drumming for “Thriller”, would come and hang out. Gonzales would show up as well; I was in school and Dave was living in Toronto at the time. Gonzales and Dave had known each other through the School of Music at McGill University. Simon Craig – the guitarist in Son – was a schoolmate of Gonzales’.

How did this tightly-knit group of talented musicians fly under the radar in the early 90s?

It was just a supportive community – it wasn’t an active ‘plot-and-conquer’ mentality at all. For example, with Son, Gonzales had already written the music and we just started playing and rehearsing it. A lot of the people we knew would come and watch and hang out, and that became a community. Domenic [Mocky] was involved as well; he was living on Ottawa, but went to school at the University of Toronto, so that set-up another connection. The thing that tied the community together was this common, raw, rebellious craziness, and maybe it wasn’t even a conscious rebellion, but more just more ‘going for it’. Rather than polishing a pop tune for the radio, we just went for it with a sort of ‘punk’ attitude.

That attitude comes out though the music. By the time “The Shit” was formed, it seemed like there was an ‘anything goes’ attitude.

It got pushed further and further while we were touring, and Gonzales took it up another level with his second album [Wolfstein]. Beyond that, it developed so far that Gonzales moved out of Canada altogether and started ‘going for it’ in Berlin. Dave had moved out there as well.

The trajectory seemed incredible – and with so many talented people. Many of the people who worked with Gonzales continued to rise within their own careers.

The thing about Gonzales is that he’s such a creative spirit – so creative. And he can’t really help himself – he sees everything with fresh eyes, and the creativity is ingrained in his make-up. It just constantly flows out, and it’s great – he just has so much going on his head and he works incredibly fast. He pumps out these great ideas and gets very excited about them, and Dave and I shared that enthusiasm. The ethic in Son was pumping out creativity, and that was galvanized when we played live. In our live shows, it was amplified.

You opened for “Barenaked Ladies”, right?

Yes, Barenaked Ladies, Everclear, Big Sugar, Treble Charger… many great acts. We did a bunch of cross-Canada stops, played Edgefest, plus a showcase in New York. When Warner picked up the Thriller album, we just started touring.

Gonzales was a drummer as well – was there a conflict?

No, not at all – he played “Noodle Heads and Beta Boys” on Thriller. He brought in some of the prepared drum parts with his songs – which were practically complete recordings. We actually recorded my drum parts in Brent Bodurg’s sister’s dance studio, which was different, since it wasn’t a typical recording studio – we just brought all of our gear in and recorded overtop of the tracks Gonzales did in his basement.

So he came in with virtually complete tracks? You did receive a co-writing credit on “Allergic Again”.

Yes, because of the hook, [sings] “I’m allergic again” The songs Gonzales brought weren’t just sketches; they were almost completed tracks. The band served to shape the music and make edits that would make sense for performance purposes.

How did you work with complete songs?

It turned into workshopping his ideas and further developing them. Everybody helped in developing the tracks, but he graciously gave me credit for the hook in “Allergic Again”, which I came up with during rehearsals. There are many artists who wouldn’t have given credit for that.

So you weren’t just the ‘touring’ drummer?

No, but Gonzales certainly knew that he eventually wanted a touring band, and we started by working on his tracks. He was looking for other musicians to bring different ideas to his songs and have them realized. The songs were further developed live.

Did you have electronic drums with Son?

Touring? No, I used a tiny 18” jazz drum set, and Daniel Lanois couldn’t believe the sound we were getting out of this tiny vintage round badge Gretsch jazz kit. An 18” kick is much easier to carry than a 24” cannon.

The live gigs seemed crazy. Didn’t Son play the entire Purple Rain album?

I wasn’t there for that; I was in France at the time with my then-girlfriend (now wife). I was there for a few months, and was trying to make connections. At that time, that’s when he was signed and the Purple Rain thing happened. He wanted to re-do Purple Rain; Dave was a big Prince fan as well, plus Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins…– that whole scene. That was a big influence on the first album. Dave had a big influence on Gonzales. He has a very free, open and creative approach to music in general. Between the three of us tripping on ideas, guitarist Simon would often roll his eyes and try to bring us back to earth. Hahaha…rehearsals were so fun and funny; not to mention, the Jim Rose Circus was also popular with us around that time.

How old were you at the time?

My early twenties. I loved it at the time; I could play the way I wanted and Gonzales loved it – he encouraged creativity and created a trajectory for the whole band. He had great songs, great hooks, and had it all plotted out. Each member of the band brought something different – very creative spirits. Dave [Taylor Savvy] has an abundance of excellent material. He has tons of tracks and is constantly creating. Many of the tracks aren’t released on a record, but they are out there.

Did you have any further involvement with Gonzales?

By the third record, I think he was already in Berlin, so he was certainly going through some changes outside of Canada. When I came back from Europe, I told everyone about the creative music scene there. Gonzales had big visions and certainly wanted control of his creativity, and, of course it’s tricky with a label like Warner to have a highly-creative guy on their hands. He managed to find a way away from Warner and into the Berlin scene, where it just exploded. We talked about that, and Gonzales indicated that I’d be better off outside of Toronto.

It sounds like Gonzales told everyone he could to leave Canada.

I agreed with that, having recently been in France. I had a lot of friends in Europe, and you just saw the creativity, and in Berlin it was completely different – even though I didn’t spend time there. It was anything goes – not corporate – very free and open. That’s where he was able to be even more creative, intelligent, and focused. He was developing his persona, and that turned into Solo Piano, and all kinds of other collaborations, including popping up on French television shows. His humour is completely tongue-in-cheek, and we had lots of laughs. It was great – really a great time.

I saw some early pictures from Son. Gonzales had a buzz cut?

Right – he had a buzz cut and wore aviator goggles. We did tons of shows and had a residency at Wrigley’s in Toronto, and out towards the west coast, we did residencies in Calgary and Vancouver. Some really, really, great stories. At one point, I remember Gonzales dying his hair blue, and he used sweat a lot, so during and after the CD release show he had blue dye literally running down his face. We had so many fun times. I still have the three videos that were produced for Television – played on MuchMusic and the like. The band image was so diverse from video to video. Actually, the one thing that tied it together was that we were over the top nuts!!!

Looking at the build-up of the Chilly persona, he seems reluctant to discuss his pre-Chilly Gonzales days.

Well, it wasn’t Gonzales in Son, but it kind of was, because that’s where he started refining his creativity; he already had a lot of ‘next step’ thoughts in his brain churning around. I can’t speak to how he developed ‘Chilly’, but I think he realized that was sort of there all along.

The fact that you need to present an exaggerated version of yourself to truly capture an audience?

He certainly wanted to go for it and he saw the next stage in his evolution as an entertainer, but it also harks back to the early Son shows where there was a ‘shock value’. We’d come out on stage with crazy outfits, our hair all done up or bleached, Gonzales would have blue hair and dye running down his face, goggles, megaphones, sound pedals – all sorts of crazy stuff going on. But the music was as great as the entertainment value and backed all of that action up. The music represented great ‘pop’ songs that Gonzales had written (not really ‘traditional’ pop – the songs are hard to classify). If you saw the show live, it was full-on and we just went for it and had a great time; completely hilarious moments.

It took off from there and Gonzales realized that people were taken aback and didn’t know if he was serious or not. It wasn’t like going to a classical concert. Gonzales is a very talented writer and a very quick thinker, so even live, it seemed easy for him to have off-the-cuff moments and just go with them and run. He was a master of improvisation during the live sets, so I think that the ‘Gonzales’ persona was a manifestation of that – trying out different angles and seeing what the audience responded to.

What was your trajectory after Son?

I stayed in Toronto, but have had the fortune to tour and record with many different bands. I’m open to all sorts of music – Son, Jazz, etc. – I just want honest, raw music, and that’s the thing that was great about Son. The appeal of that band to me (or anyone else) was that it wasn’t about playing each song perfectly. We had the song structure, but we’d often improvise just to see where it would go. The same song over a month or two of playing would have many different variations.

I learned a lot of things from the bands we toured with as well; Big Sugar, Barenaked Ladies, the Rheostatics whom we never toured with but listened to – great, unique and talented bands that went for it as well.

What do you think of the musical scene today?

The music scene is tricky today – no matter what, and in the end it comes down to your ability and what you believe in. If you are chasing something that you think you should be doing rather that what you really want to be doing, unless that’s what you want to do, then you have to question your trajectory. I’ve always played original music – my focus was on contemporary music rather than things in the past. I would rather create and trailblaze than reproduce to fall into a category. Everyone in Son was creative and could play multiple instruments. Dave Szigeti is very creative; there would be fun moments where we would switch instruments. We didn’t do that live, but everyone had a very strong musical and improvisational background. When you have all of these creative minds focus on a vision that someone believes in long enough to get it going, then things can grow. Without that support, it becomes much trickier.

It seemed that there was animosity between Gonzales and Warner?

I think the relationship with Warner was a sort of turning point. I don’t think he would have been ‘Chilly’ had he not left that situation. If he just stuck to putting out what they wanted, it wouldn’t have worked. It’s not like they told him what to put out but they would definitely tell him if they would not put something out. I think Gonzales lost respect for big labels early on; he was ahead of his time.

Have you kept in touch with Gonzales?

A little bit; I communicated when I was in France a few years back and have gone to see him with Peaches doing Peaches Christ Superstar. I’ve really kept in touch with David who still lives in Berlin.

Was there a transition between you and Mocky?

Into Son? We used to play with the band that Mocky was in – we did a couple of shows with them, so we were really always close together. I don’t think Mocky really played live with Son per se, but Gonzales did plenty of things with Mocky while in Berlin and they were great friends. When Gonzales moved to Berlin, Peaches, Feist, Taylor, and Mocky all ended up there at the same time. That reflected the scene in Toronto when we started getting together – all of sudden, there was a congregation of highly-talented people who started to form around ideas, now in Berlin.

Lots of talent in a small space.

The funny thing is that no one really paid attention to the group in Toronto. As soon as you are out of your scene and set off a few firecrackers, then people turn around and say, “Hey – that’s one of our guys!” All of a sudden, that person has attention. It’s sad that you can’t get international recognition while living in Canada. In a sense, a guy like Gonzales said, “I don’t need this scene!” and left Canada to start pushing and going for it abroad.

Sometimes the infrastructure in Canada is not there – it’s a young scene, and the ranks are not fully established. Why would a promoter invest 2-3 years in a group that may not ultimately payoff when they can see who is big and draws crowds already? There aren’t many promoters willing to take chances anymore, but I realize that it’s a business. I understand that business is important on all levels, but there’s something to be said that gives back beyond just dollars. Maybe creativity or a different slant could be promoted or used to stand out from the crowd?

The fact that Gonzales is successful and doing it on his own terms means that he’s hit that ultimate sweet spot for an artist; but trailblazing isn’t for the faint of heart. In the early days, everyone in our group was hitting our heads against the wall. You have these big names like Bryan Adams, who is excellent, but anyone who didn’t fit into that category or style had a tough haul. It didn’t mean that the group wasn’t good or influential in the underground scene. I remember Daniel Lanois coming out to see a Son show in my hometown Hamilton with my close friend and great drummer Tone Valcic who also subbed in Son while I was in France. There was a buzz around Son – the focus was to stand up and claim our identity, as opposed to saying we want to just be like so-and-so.

It seems that the people in the close-knit group didn’t put ‘massive’ fame at the top of their list.

The question generally is – can you hold it together and not cross the line? There is a threshold that when crossed, ends up affecting your ability to walk down the street. You end up with constraints and expectations, which can affect the creative process. That may not be where the artist initially wanted to go. We all want to continue to learn and grow as artists, and massive fame seems to get in the way. Learning, for an artist or entertainer, is a lifelong process. Does huge fame change entertainers from what they could have been? If Gonzales didn’t move to Berlin, and instead tried to tackle the United States, would he have still been the same? Definitely not.

Isn’t making it in the US a goal for every musician?

I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore, but it’s a huge market, so financially it makes sense. Your label may be driving that for you, but I’m not sure. Whether I’m from the US, India, Africa, Europe, or Canada, or wherever, it makes no difference – we communicate through music and understand each other, and if we don’t, then the question arises, “Why not?” If you take a perspective that everyone is equal, then it comes down to how much money you or your label wants to make. Sure, we all need to make a living, but I need to be creative and make a mark as a musician as much as the next person. The thing that’s always stayed with me is to be honest with yourself as to who you are. Then you can say something worth listening to.

At the end of the day, if a different personality is what you want, then that’s great. I don’t feel like I need that – I just need to stay creative, listening and respecting others, and having a good life with my family and friends. That’s the main thing for me.

When I was deciding to go to school for music, the high school councilor discouraged me (like many other artists) and I can’t blame them because they didn’t know that market or lifestyle at all. The road isn’t paved, but if you like off-roading, it’s great. It has elements of business, relations, it’s exciting, fun, and creative. Music is an amazing career.

Do you recall any memorable stories from being on tour with Son?

At one point, we brought in a sound guy – Dylan Goodhue – the Goodhue brothers. They were way over the top. He eventually had a band called Texas Cowbell (I think). He came in to do the sound, and at one point we did a show where we dared him to adjust the bass drum microphone in the middle of the show, but he had to cut holes in his jeans so that both of his bare buttcheeks would be showing to the entire audience – and he did it.

Another great story; we just left Toronto on our first western tour – a long evening drive, and we ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere. We had previously indicated to Gonzales that we had better stop for some gas, but he said, “Nah – we’re fine!” so we kept driving and eventually ran out of gas. Dylan offered a prank to help boost morale – to disrobe and run down the highway naked. He had super long blond hair, so all we see in the lights of the van is this blond hair waving back-and-forth, and eventually, all we hear are the horns of the truckers honking at him when they approach from behind, thinking it’s a woman. So he turns around and starts running back with one hand covering his crotch! Eventually, CAA comes and gives us gas and we’re fine, but it marked the beginning of the insanity that we had on the road. There are so many fun stories and good memories from that time.

Anthony, thanks so much for taking time out to sit down and chat.


About Anthony

From 1995 to present, Anthony Michelli has performed, recorded, produced and taught all styles of music in collaboration with distinguished international composers and performers. He has performed on over one hundred internationally released recordings in the contemporary jazz, original composition, popular music, world music and creative music genres.

He teaches classes and private study at Mohawk College, York University and at the Humber College Community Program, and has led master classes, solo and with groups. Anthony is at the final stage of a Ph.D. from York University, specializing in rhythmic studies. He also leads his own performance projects, such as the Anthony Michelli Trio and his “Bass-less” group, which features his original compositions.

You can read more about Anthony and his recordings at his website www.AnthonyMichelli.com

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