The iconic and hugely popular CBC radio show ‘q’ recently rebooted with a new host (the brilliant Canadian rapper Shad), and one of the show’s first musical guests was one of q’s favourite artists…Chilly Gonzales. Gonzales, who is back in Canada for a concert in Toronto and three consecutive nights in his hometown of Montreal, captivated the in-person and listening audiences with great stories, insight, and humour. Gonzales’ past q appearances generated a great deal of buzz, and his latest appearance packed a great deal of entertainment in 20 minutes. You can watch or listen to the show or podcast on CBC’s website, but we thought it would be a great idea to examine the new musical messages that Gonzales has been referring to on his latest tour. We’ll present the transcript of the interview and interject (in italics) where appropriate.
Chilly Gonzales on ‘q’
Shad: Well, our next guest has written, « There are many musicians out there in the world today, some of them are frauds, others merely mediocre, and a scant few worthy of listening. Can you tell the difference? » We at q believe Jason Beck, aka Chilly Gonzales clarifies the difference between the fraudsters and the worthy whenever he performs the Canadian pianist, composer, singer, rapper, and producer is simply put – one of q’s favourite artists. His new album with the Kaiser Quartett called Chambers features pieces dedicated to some of his favourites like Juicy J, Felix Mendelssohn, and Daft Punk. Please welcome Chilly Gonzales and the Kaiser Quartett.
[Gonzales introduces the Kaiser Quartett - and indicates that it's their 1st time in Canada.]
Shad: Can you setup the song you’re going to play for us now?
Chilly: It’s called Advantage Points and this song was my attempt to make pop music with the string quartet, so if you think of the string quartet as a pop instrument, you have to go back to I guess the Beatles and Eleanor Rigby. [plays Eleanor Rigby]
Here, Gonzales sets the tone right away with a very brief performance of « Eleanor Rigby », which has the audience nodding and saying to themselves, « Yes, I really loved the fact that the Beatles used chamber instruments in that beautiful song. » With this, the audience not only repeats the chamber portion of the song in their head, they want more and are possibly intrigued as to how chamber music is used effectively in popular music. Gonzales’ goal may also be to point out that his approach to combining chamber music and pop isn’t so foreign.
Chilly: And that means that the string quartet is being used as a band in a way and this goes back of course to perhaps Mozart [plays Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.]. Ok, stop, stop, stop, stop – no I’m picturing naves prancing and I would like it to be more melancholy, so perhaps we can put that into a minor key? And in other classical music, the idea of pounding, chugging rhythms actually caused a riot – about a hundred years ago in Paris, Stravinsky’s the Rites of Spring made people go crazy, what would it take for you guys to have a riot right now? Right? Let’s hear what was so offensive. Catchy stuff, right? So these are the kind of samples I had in mind, because if I’m thinking of being a composer with the attitude of a rapper, it means I’m going to use these musical gestures as kind of musical units. So this is Advantage Points, where I try to synthesize all of these gestures.
Gonzales not only shows that chamber music has always been entertaining (though none other than that other musical genius Mozart), he also sums up his minor key message that even entertaining music can be made more ‘emotional’ with the simple change of a musical key. As for rioting, an excellent question – what kind of music would it take for people to riot? Does today’s music invoke the same sort of uninhibited passion that it did a hundred years ago? Gonzales’ point may be that he’s looked for the common threads within pivotal compositions and ‘sampled’ the bits that are catchy and passionate to use in his music.
Shad: So Chilly, what I want to talk to you about is the interplay between classical works and commercial pop music. You play with those boundaries. Why is that so interesting to you?
Chilly: Well, I look for what’s in common between eras and styles of music, I’m kind of a musical humanist, so while other people might be focusing on, well this style uses this piece of technology, and this style of music uses a kind of social message, I would focus on the actual musical tools, something like a arpeggio, or the idea of musical symmetry, or an expressive melody – you can hear that in 1500, you can hear it today, and we’ll still hear it in a few hundred years, so I look for what makes styles and eras more similar, rather than what makes them different.
Gonzales appears to be referring to musical as a psychological reaction – our brains are wired in a way to be sensitive to certain types of sound, and music takes advantage of this ‘wiring’ to change or reinforce people’s moods and behaviour. A catchy melody or melancholy chord progression is universal because that’s the way our minds work. He’s looked for the things that are universal and used them effectively in his chamber compositions. Successful producers have this innate sense of what sounds catchy and interesting to modern ears – be it repeating a chorus, changing key at the right time, having a singalong part, or a host of other auditory ‘tricks’. Gonzales is unique in that he specifically points out that he looks for catchy musical ideas.
Shad: People have been trying to break down this high/low boundary for a long time – I think about Andy Warhol a few years ago with pop art – how do you see those boundaries today?
Chilly: Well, I would say rap music definitely took that post-modern approach and really everyone kind of ‘got it’ – you could hear a song back in the 90s and go like , wait isn’t that a song from my childhood that’s kind of been re-purposed for this rap song and we’ve kind of understood what sampling was. If I think of classical music, I approach that kind of how a rap producer would, like this Chopin for the 1st few bars [plays Chopin]. If you listen like a rap producer, you kind of listen for the break you like. And then you, kind of, and there it’s looped up, you know and now Chopin has become a rapper: Lil’ Freddie.
Playing Chopin’s Waltz Op.64 #2 live and turning it into a sampled loop at just the right moment was pure genius; something visceral and dynamic that the audience almost couldn’t believe that they were hearing. Shad probably had to stop himself from freestyling over the loop (although he did end up freestyling with Gonzales after the show was off the air). This is the hallmark of a great teacher – take a concept and ‘make it real’ right in front of your students. If there was anyone in the audience who wasn’t with him before this part, they certainly were now.
Shad: So, I’m curious, on a personal level, was it hip-hop that helped you see this?
Chilly: Well, when I was in my teens and 20s and wanted a career as a musician, many people who were gatekeepers in the industry said, you have to decide, are you serious, or commercial, are you funny, are you deep, are you superficial? I wanted to be all of those things at the same time and when rappers came out, they had that. They didn’t have to take that false choice – they could be materialistic and socially conscious at the same time. They could be superficial and deep. They could of course be avant-garde in their musical approach, but may a ton of money, so they could have it all.
Here, Gonzales nicely sums up his respect for rappers and rap culture: they could have it all. The ability to have seemingly contradictory aspects of your persona that make sense in context, plus the ability to work your way up through what is in essence a meritocracy. Gonzales has also sampled rap culture and brought elements to his persona and music in the only way that a white Canadian could.
Shad: I’ve also heard you credit rap with making pop lyrics more literal. Could you explain that?
Chilly: Well, yes, of course I respect Canadian indie rock for keeping the idea of more abstract, poetic lyrics alive, because in the rest of pop music, it’s true that we’ve arrived at a point where this new Rhianna song came out and it’s called « B**ch Better have my Money », and I thought, « Is this really where we’re at? » she’s not a rapper, she’s a pop singer, and yet that’s the title of her new single, so it has become very literal and we’ve lost a little bit, this idea of, « Wow, what is Nick Kershaw really talking about when he asks, Wouldn’t it be good? » I know what Rhianna is talking about when she says, mmmm better have my money, and I like it when I can dream a bit and it’s sort of fill in the blanks of what people are saying and it has become quite literal – you know exactly what these pop singers are talking about.
Gonzales was part of the Canadian indie rock scene though his band ‘Son’, since (as he previously mentioned) the gatekeepers would only let bands ‘in’ that aligned to current trends. The Canadian indie rock scene of today has changed somewhat from 1996, but in essence, it’s still the driving force behind Canadian music (and maybe one of the reasons why Gonzales hasn’t settled back in Canada). When current mainstream music trends start to fall out of favour with a new generation, there’s always an opportunity for a change in musical taste (like grunge rock in the 1990s). Maybe Gonzales will be able to fill in the musical gap that the next generation is looking for?
Shad: I though that a bit when I heard Miley Cyrus « Party in the USA », and she’s talking about driving into LAX and she’s making pop culture references – I never really heard that in a pop song before – I mean, rap is littered with it.
Chilly: Well, yes, that’s just rap seeping more and more into the mainstream. I do think it’s a good thing, but rap is a kind of mirror to our society in many ways, so I always feel like we get the rap we deserve. If people don’t like the rap of today, chances are they just don’t like today.
Shad: I think that’s very true. I want to ask you about this really interesting discovery in terms of the character of Chilly Gonzales and the freedom that comes with that character to be all these things; to be serious, to be playful. Tell us, what’s the difference between Jason Beck, and Chilly Gonzales?
Chilly: Well, I don’t answer personal questions about my life, no one really knows anything about how I am when I leave this place, this studio. When I say I’m a musical genius for example, the self-described musical genius, that’s because that’s my fantasy – I’m living out a fantasy by being here. This is an escape from Jason Beck in a way, and I can take all the parts that maybe I’m a little bit uncomfortable with, unsure about, and kind of put them into a kind of mise-en-scène, if I may be pretentious enough to use the French word, and so in a way, I’m protected and projected by the character at the same time. You see what I did there – it’s almost the same word – ‘t’ and ‘j’ – ‘protect’ and ‘project’?
Although the wordplay drew a large laugh from the audience, there’s a much deeper message in that people can (and do) assume personas on a daily basis, depending who they are with. It’s likely not as extreme as Jason Beck versus Chilly Gonzales, but the ability to do things within the guise of a character allows up to envision and achieve things that we never thought were possible. There are downsides to personas as well, since it’s likely mentally challenging to be someone else and dynamically switch from minute to minute, or even have your persona start to drive your ‘real’ life. It’s a fascinating concept.
Shad: That was beautiful. That’s what happens when you speak from the heart, it becomes very poetic and we’re very glad to have you here. You’re going to play us another song.
Chilly: Absolutely, yes. We’re going to play a song called ‘Freudian Slippers’. This is very much influenced by rap, because first of all, I’m wearing slippers. For those who are listening on the radio, I am wearing slippers, and there is perhaps a deep-seated psychological reason why I insist on wearing slippers on stage, so that’s where the song title came from, but rap in the 90s especially, it has this rhythm what was called ‘Boom-bap’, and this was the sort of, Jazzy era of rap, and basically the rhythm was ‘Boom-psst Boom boom boom-psst’, and that’s what you do when you kind of want to rap like a white person going, « I’m gonna rap now », you go « boom-psst boom-boom-psst », that’s what you do. And so in a way, I tried to take this rhythm, this « boom-boom’ – this is a very, very important rhythm, because this has really changed – when Jazz music came along, they way they would have played this sort of double note in a classical way would be a little more square and European – it would be like [plays on the piano] – very, very proper, and in a Jazz way or in a rap way it would become more like [plays on the piano]. So this very, very, slight repeated note kind of became the main motif for Freudian Slippers, so I hopefully have made these Germans into slightly funkier than they really are and then we will hopefully hear the echo of this boom-bap in the melody of Freudian Slippers.
Shad: When we’re done here, I want to ask you about musically notating funk, but first I want to hear you perform.
Chilly: I’ll think about it while I play this song.
Ending the show on Freudian Slippers was an excellent choice: it’s fun, deep, emotional, and uplifting, and q’s listeners really seemed to love Gonzales’ latest foray into chamber music. After Gonzales explained what to listen for in Freudian Slippers, another dimension of the song emerged – one which was influenced by Jazz and early rap. The hallmark of a great song is being able to hear something different on subsequent plays, and Freudian Slippers certainly seems to have the ability to acoustically ‘morph’. Oh, and we don’t doubt that Gonzales was able to think about funk notation while playing Freudian Slippers.
Like his music, Gonzales’ messages morph to uncover deeper and deeper layers of music and the industry. We’ve often said that Gonzales’ openness is a large part of his appeal – there no other entertainer out there who takes joy in teaching and sharing his knowledge and insights. If the Q show was a preview for Gonzales’ concerts, then we’re in for a real treat; in less than a week, we’ll be attending one of Gonzales’ Montreal concerts and will post a full review.