Chilly Gonzales takes the stage at the Pigalle Club, a Forties-style dinner and cabaret spot in London’s West End (circular tables, low ceilings, regular intervals of green velvet), and assumes his place at the piano. He is wearing a brown knee-length silk robe with matching trousers and a pair of generously cushioned slippers. His hands are encased in pristine white gloves. With shadowy deep-set eyes and slicked back hair, he is the very image of the brooding piano maestro.
He eases into a medley of slow, spare classical pieces. The music starts off somber and restrained, but his fingers move with such fluidity that they can’t resist adding little flourishes here and there. The embellishments begin to mount up. What opened with an air of great solemnity is now becoming increasingly comical. Now he’s playing a blues standard with one hand, a blur of white hammering away at the lower octaves.
He wraps it up and turns to confront his audience. “Hi, I’m Chilly Gonzales. If you don’t know me, I’m a Grammy-nominated producer.” This is true. He continues: “I hold the Guinness world record for longest continuous piano concert at 27 hours.” This is also true. “I’ve got a lot of famous friends.” He pauses for effect, then performs a modest raise of the shoulders. “In France, where I live, they call me un génie musicale.”
In 2004, Gonzales, who is neither French nor Hispanic but Canadian and whose real name is Jason Beck, released Solo Piano, an album of concise minimalist classical numbers in the vein of Erik Satie which gave substance to the génie musicale claim. Those who came to know Gonzales through that album – his best-selling by some margin – would have been shocked to learn that the author of those beautiful, delicate pieces had previously made, among other things, a gleefully profane lo-fi rap record called The Entertainist.
It’s not entirely surprising that a musician who rolls out his “unfuckwithable resume” at the beginning of a show, and makes unabashed reference to his musical genius at every opportunity, should dabble with rap. Rapping is, after all, the art of the inflated brag. The Sugarhill Gang were extolling their globally-endorsed sexual prowess and enviable motoring options as hip-hop drew its first breath, and given the amount of hot air that’s been blown over 4/4 beats since then, it’s no wonder the ice caps are melting.
“It’s up to them to decide after the concert if I really am a musical genius. I sincerely think it, but I’m aware that I can’t just say it in that 100 percent sincere way, so I try to play with it.”
Gonzales embraces the spirit of boastfulness on The Entertainist and its more lavishly produced follow-up, Presidential Suite, although in Gonzoworld the line between brag and self-skewering gag is always porous. Yes, he may be “the greatest entertainer of the year”, but he is also “the worst MC” who gets “more pussy than a priest”. He is “the prankster Frank Sinatra”, a “combination of Joe Stalin and Woody Allen”, whom you may address as “Fuckeye” or “the one-eyed Jew”. Or “Chilly Chaplin”. Or “Santa Klaus Kinski”, because he spent a few years living in Berlin.
“I am the worst MC” is at once a villainous sneer and an admission that Gonzales’ rapping abilities circa 2000 left something to be desired. In fact, as he demonstrates during tonight’s show, Gonzales is a pretty good rapper – stylistically derivative perhaps, but deft, playful and always entertaining. He spouts vast jets of nonsense in his rhymes but somehow manages to be more upfront than any other rapper you’d care to name.
Musicians rarely speak about, let alone lyricize, the shallow calculations that often underscore big career decisions, yet here is Gonzales on why he left Canada for Berlin: “I still remember when it first occurred to me./ Fuck it, I’m gonna move to Germany./ I don’t speak German, screw it/ But hey! I’m Jewish/ And I need a new press angle and that should do it.”
These kinds of outrageous proclamations make listening to Gonzales, or attending one of his shows, enormously fun. His almost pathological frankness presents an interesting challenge, however, when it comes to interviewing the guy. Any criticism you’d level at him has already been anticipated, and slyly underlined, in his music, or on other platforms. When he released Soft Power, his paean to Seventies soft-rock, in 2008, he posted a video online in which a Mercury label honcho begs him to take singing lessons to soften his harsh Montrealer tones. In the clip he circulated to promote his London dates, Gonzales tells a buffoonish interviewer, also played by Jason Beck, that although he “owns” France, he remains an underdog in England, adding: “I’m not a young man anymore. This could be my last chance.”
So why all the second-guessing?
“It comes from a lifetime of trying to put myself in the audience’s shoes,” Beck tells me when we meet a couple of weeks after the first Pigalle show. “If you can anticipate the things that may run through their mind – positive, negative or whatever – and let them know that you have thought about that already, then you can move on to something bit deeper… to a purer entertainment experience. Also, it increases the general mastery of the room.”
Accounting for the self-aggrandizing, egomaniac side of Gonzales – the Joe Stalin to his inner Woody Allen – he says: “People can choose whether to take it as a joke or not. I can’t always control what the audience thinks but I can do my best to check those boxes. It’s up to them to decide after the concert if I really am a musical genius. I sincerely think it, but I’m aware that I can’t just say it in that 100 percent sincere way, so I try to play with it.”
When Larry David talks about Curb Your Enthusiasm, he describes the onscreen Larry David as a conduit for all the things he would like to do or say in real life but cannot, because he is not a complete sociopath. I wonder if Chilly Gonzales fulfills a similar role for Jason Beck. Is there much difference, I ask him, between your stage persona and your private self?
“Oh, not so much, not so much,” he says. “With the more confrontational aspects of what I do, I suppose it does work in the Larry David way. I’m not confrontational in my daily life, so yes it frees you up to get out those frustrations.”
When Jason Beck moved to Berlin in the late Nineties and created the Gonzales persona, his frustrations had a definite shape and an identifiable source. His first shot at musical stardom in Canada, fronting an omnivorous rock outfit named Son, had ended in disappointment. Son’s debut album, Thriller, had achieved modest success and earned them a place on a major label, Warner Music Canada. A darker and more ambitious second album, Wolfstein, was met with hostility by Warner and the relationship quickly foundered, as did the band.
It was clearly a painful experience for Beck. You can feel the force of his bitterness on The Entertainist’s opener, “Candy”, which lobs a big angry hand-grenade at the label and its A&R management. (Sample line: “If I had my druthers, I’d make those motherfuckers really fuck their mothers.”)
“In Canada I didn’t have the balls to get my Larry David on, as you put it,” says Beck. “I was just kind of playing the game and trying to appear more authentic than I really was. So when I left Canada and decided to start the Gonzales project: I call that my supervillainous origins. The moment the lightning hit the laboratory. It was overcompensating for what I felt were two years of repressing things that I wanted to say, ways that I wanted to be.”
So Gonzales was a means of letting off steam.
“Absolutely. That’s what made it so potent I guess: the outrageous, non-conformist quality. You hear a lot of false modesty clichés in the way musicians of my age talk about what they do. They are afraid of the accusation of being calculating. Everyone still wants to make it seem like they’re just kind of doing it and it was an accident that they ended up in this job. But there are no accidents for egomaniacs getting up on stage, and if you get up on stage, you’re an egomaniac, simple as that.”
Beck decided to make his newfound expressive freedom the centerpiecen of his act. “I realized it had entertaining qualities and attention-getting qualities. It was very much more frontal at the beginning,” he adds, “especially because the nature of the music was more… Well, there was less musical depth, if you will, at that point.”
Beck says he has mellowed since Berlin. His subsequent albums bear this out, but as always you’ve got to take his calculations into account. In a typically semi-serious video interview promoting Soft Power, he says: “Hard power is what Gonzales did in the beginning: screaming, jumping, using force to achieve his goals. But soft power is the power of persuasion, diplomacy and subtle influence, and this is what Gonzales is doing now.”
This change of tack, and the whole zigzagging course of his musical career, which has shifted from electro to rap to music-hall rap to minimalist classical to soft-rock, is causally linked to what Beck calls his reactive personality. In practice, this means that each new chapter in the Gonzales story must diverge from what preceded it. Soft Power, he explains on the video, is “about the painful transition from outsider to insider… How is Gonzales going to deal now with people embracing him?”
Gonzales has indeed been embraced, in France especially, but outside mainland Europe and Canada he remains a cult figure and a curiosity. His four London shows sold out and were enthusiastically received, but Soft Power, his most recent album, wasn’t even released in the UK.
I ask Beck if he feels that his readiness to foreground the gag has hamstrung his credibility as a serious artist. Isn’t his inarguable brilliance as a pianist and a songwriter undermined, somehow, when he rhymes about Joe Stalin and baboons and having three gonads? I ask this, only to discover later on, when I’m watching Gonzales clips on YouTube, that he’s already made a mockery of a question just like this in one of his staged interviews. But when I ask it he treats me graciously and gives me a straight answer.
“Maybe. But I’m just trying to work with what I have. This is my personality and ever since a young age, when I was doing piano competitions as a teenager, it was hard for me to play the part of the goody-goody. I just don’t see any other way to do it than indulge my needs.”
Comedy is clearly inextricable from Beck’s fundamental conception of the Gonzales character. “Most of my heroes are tragic comedians,” he says. “The humor that interests me the most doesn’t go: ‘Look at that, isn’t that ridiculous’. It goes: ‘Look at me, I’m an idiot. Look at all of us, we’re idiots.’”
Even the beguiling Solo Piano, he tells me, had an element of piss-take about it, exploring the notion of the melancholy solitary pianist with an eyebrow raised. However Soft Power is, he insists, his least jokey album, the one that is closest to his heart and his Frankie Goes To Hollywood-loving 14-year-old self, and he gets upset when people regard it as a send-up.
This niggle aside, Beck doesn’t seem to care all that much if we take him seriously or not. As it turns out, he’s perfectly happy with his present situation and the qualified nature of his success. Global superstardom, he says, “is not something I covet at the moment.” He regards his friend Feist, of “1234” fame, as something of a cautionary tale: “When I see the things she’s had to deal with, it doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. For all the joking about being a megalomaniac, at some point it became clear that I prefer to build my own world, even if it’s smaller, and be master of it, than to impose on the real world.” He adds: “I like to be poly as opposed to mono.”
Gonzoworld has been expanding of late and becoming ever more poly. A few years ago, when he moved from Berlin to Paris, Beck learned the ins and outs of producing and started working with a diverse range of artists, from Jamie Lidell, Teki Latex and Peaches to Charles Aznavour and Jane Birkin. He wasn’t joking earlier about that Grammy nomination: he produced a chunk of Feist’s last album The Reminder and had a hand in the huge success of “1234”.
He tells me he’s doing fewer production jobs these days – he’d rather not labor too much on the second fiddle – but the evening I meet him, at a studio in East London, he’s working with a promising young English artist, the cocknbullkid, on her debut album.
In his spare time, Gonzales has been concentrating on his acting career and burgeoning multimedia empire. Alongside the amusing promotional skits, he has created and is starring in an online comedy series called Superproducer, which aims to do for sleazy studio tyrants what Flight of the Conchords has done for underachieving Kiwi musicians.
His next album, Ivory Tower, which he is making with Berlin electro producer Boys Noize, will be accompanied by a feature film. “The main roles are played by myself, my mother, [Canadian DJ and electro producer] Tiga, who plays my brother, and Feist, who’s the love interest for both of us. It’s about the world of Canadian chess champions.”
Are there many of those?
“I’m not sure if there are any,” he chuckles. “So we had sort of carte blanche to imagine it as we wished.” The film shoots in March and he is hoping, somewhat optimistically, to release it by September, along with the album.
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/6944245 w=380&h=214]
Last fall, Gonzales challenged the exuberant rocker Andrew WK to a piano battle in New York. The challenge was accepted and the showdown took place in September at Joe’s Pub in the East Village.
Beck seems very pleased with the event. “Even rappers don’t really battle like this”, he enthuses. (In fact, the battle was closer in spirit to a pro wrestling match than a musical hoedown.) Now he’s on the lookout for other worthy opponents. At one of his Pigalle shows, he issues an open challenge to Jools Holland, the British boogie-woogie-playing TV host, and, on a slightly more surreal note, the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Last but not least, there’s the aforementioned record-breaking piano concert, at which he played 250 songs from memory over a 27-hour stretch. How much practice did he do?
“I didn’t do any. I knew the adrenaline would carry me, and that if I said I was going to play 27 hours, either I would stop at 26:58 and make it a huge piss-take, or I’d just do the whole thing. One second to 27 hours: that’s when I started to feel tired.”
But aside from a credit in the Guinness Book of Records, what possessed him to do it?
He was completing a residency in Paris, he says, and wanted to plan something extreme for the final night. “And this was very much geared towards my real skills. Obviously I’m not going to say, ‘Wow isn’t it great that I played 250 songs with no scores in front of me’, but it does take advantage of a prodigious musical memory as well as my endurance and ego. These are all huge parts of my personality.”
On related matters of personality, Beck tells me he’s a workaholic – not entirely surprising – and “pretty much a homebody”, in contrast to the party-hard image he disseminated from Berlin. As a kid he “played music the whole time with my older brother” [Chris Beck, now an Emmy-winning composer for television and film]. He says he was already a budding dictator at 14 with his Smiths-aping first band, The Faith.
“It goes hand-in-hand with the gift and the curse of having this technical music ability from an early age,” he says. “It does command you respect when you’re 14 and you can lift any song you hear and play it instantly. It felt like a superpower, like one of those characters in that TV show Heroes. I could demonstrate it and get a reaction from people, like: ‘Wow that’s amazing, you just heard that song for the first time and now you can play it!’ That’s the seed of egomania right there!”
His piano-playing abilities still have the dazzle of a superpower. Back at the Pigalle Club, after such a sober and regimented lead-in, he rounds off the show by climbing up onto the piano, applying his slippered feet to the keys and playing a perfectly serviceable rendition of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. We’re deep in Chilly Gonzales territory now. To hell with the purists and the po-faced: this is Gonzoworld, bitches. Entertainment is king here. Pleasing the crowd, and simultaneously owning them, is all that matters. The first word and the last. It’s deadly serious. But if you’re not getting the joke by now, you might as well leave the room.