Gonz and Tonic

As part of “The Music Behind” Podcast series, Tonic (@TonicMusic) creative director Susan Stone had an opportunity to interview Gonzales from the Soho Theatre in London.

From the tonic.fm website: “The Music Behind podcast series celebrates the music that has inspired great artists of our time. With each featured guest we ask the same nine questions, but the songs and stories are remarkably unique and insightful.”

Susan eloquently described Gonzales music as “equal parts beauty, intensity, intelligence, and humour”, and she introduced him using the proper honorific: “Chilly Gonzales the Musical Genius”.

The interview format alternates between Q&A and short performances, which worked very well. Prior to the ‘questions’, Susan asked Gonzales about the pianos he uses on stage. Gonzales indicated that on stage he appreciates the power of the grand piano to achieve a full virtuosic range – it’s more of a bullfight! This may explain the PianoVision video of a pianist bullfighting with an anthropomorphic piano-bull; it appears to be quite the battle!

Susan also asked Gonzales if he has a favourite key. In writing his piano concerto, he discovered E flat minor, which is apparently difficult for string and breath performers to play. A tweet prior to his concert in Poland may shed some light on this:

Then, onto the ‘standard’ questions:

Q: “What was one of the first songs that blew your mind?”

Gonzales chooses Frère Jacques (Brother John). As a child, he was drawn to minor keys because they express much more of what’s taboo in society. Also, the ostinato line in the left hand is: C G (his initials), Brother John – are you sleeping? No, I think he’s dead.

Susan asked Gonzales if he had heard Mahler’s version (which was itself based on a folk tune)? The 3rd movement of Mahler’s 1st symphony is Frère Jacques in a minor key. Gonzales added that Mahler’s version probably lacked a political statement!

Q: “What’s a song you wish you had written?”

Gonzales answered: Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, and goes on to explain how, as a youth, he was torn between his Grandfather’s Hungarian Jewish upbringing (where classical is king) and being a product of the MTV generation. Gonzales’ solution? A musical rebellion of sorts – play Ride of the Valkyries as a funky Ray Charles jazz piece.
Interestingly, by playing Ride of the Valkyries in this manner, Gonzales may have ‘disarmed’ the piece by changing it from an ominous song into an almost humorous one. This rebellion may also have partially been aimed at Wagner, as if to say, “See – I just turned your doom-and-gloom song into a funny little ditty.”

This technique is reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lyric from “A More Humane Mikado”:

“It is my very humane endeavour to make, to some extent, each evil liver a running river of harmless merriment.”

Gonzales also hypothesized that Schroeder might have been a Wagner fan. Well, maybe he starts with Beethoven, and then moves onto Wagner. As a reminder, Beethoven’s 242nd birthday is on Dec 16th.

Q: “What song do you want played at your funeral?”

Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, as if to say hello death, goodbye life! Gonzales indicated that Lionel Richie was more of an instrumentalist, and that hello contains the same melody and chord progression as the 1945 French song “Autumn Leaves”, which Gonzales uses effectively in concert to have the entire venue singing along.

Q: “Any musical advice for parents?”

Gonzales indicated that many parents tell him that Solo Piano is very soothing for kids; it’s music that kids can connect to that isn’t “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. As for musical education, Gonzales suggests that kids learn the drums first to gain a good sense of rhythm. “There’s nothing sadder than a musician lacking rhythm.” Gonzales demonstrates the drumming technique in the piano for songs such as Ivory Tower, and Evolving Doors. He also adds that a flat dynamic range is important in the albums to prevent the music from disturbing what people are doing, but it is equally important to go 1-100 and bring up the dynamic range in a live context.

Q: I read somewhere that you consider your Solo Piano work another part of your brand. Do you feel that even in the context of the Solo Piano albums there is a sense of false authenticity?

Gonzales’ answer was in-depth. To paraphrase, his message is that the ‘pure sound’ of Solo Piano tends to lull people into a sense that it’s the ‘real’ Gonzales (or Jason Beck) coming out. While the sound of a solo piano is more pure, his belief is that music is the best way to express emotions, and people shouldn’t assume that he’s all of a sudden an ‘artist’. He’s still working his ass off to ensure that the songs are concise, economical, and rooted in pop. To top it all off, recording a solo piano album is inherently more difficult than a multi-track album; if there’s even a slight hesitation, the entire take is ruined. In some sense, the thought, concentration, empathy, and difficulty required when recording solo piano makes Solo Piano II even more of an entertainer’s album.
People sometimes forget that when artists create an album, there’s no errata; all the tracks live on as originally released. Gonzales had a few days in the recording studio to record the tracks to his satisfaction (or at least a balance of studio time, personal health, and satisfaction). The end result is void of any trace of the difficult recording process, which is a testament to Gonzales’ skill and experience.

“Q: Choose a song from your favorite score”

Gonzales indicates that he’s a fan of the Sopranos, and season two opened with a retrospective montage set to Sinatra’s version of “It Was a Very Good Year”. It’s just a huge banger!

“Q: One of the last songs that blew your mind was Marvin’s Room by Drake. Why did that song blow your mind?”

Another in-depth answer. To summarize; recording with Drake fulfilled a longtime dream of Gonzales to record with an ‘NBA-level rapper’. After Gonzales’ “The Tourist” (from Solo Piano) appeared on Drake’s “So Far Gone” mixtape, he had the opportunity to record with Drake in the Studio. When Drake played Marvin’s Room for Gonzales, it had a very emotional effect, and Gonzales played an outro (in one take), which eventually appeared on Drake’s “Take Care” album.

Oddly enough, one doesn’t expect an entertainer who is used to dishing out gut-wrenching harmonies to be himself emotionally affected by a song (as opposed to mathematically analyzing and disassembling the chord structure). This underscores how much the context in which you listen to music can have an effect on how you perceive the music. Gonzales himself indicates that “Marvin’s Room” may not have had the same emotional impact if he listened to it on the radio. This is also why Gonzales’ music is so effective live; he’s able to control and dynamically modify his message based on how the audience is receiving the music – something that is impossible (so far) with recorded music.

“Q: What is your theme song?”

Gonzales picks “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. He considers himself a musical athlete. The evidence: Guinness World Record holder, piano battles, bringing out the competitive spirit in artists, and pure sweat! His last point is poignant: “Everyone who gets on that stage must be ambitious, and must have something to prove…they all have the “Eye of the Tiger.”

As an overall comment, Gonzales seems to have newfound ‘gusto’ for interviews. Recent interviews have been informative and dynamic, which must be difficult day after day, but well worth the effort to expose his music and messages to an ever-widening global audience.

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