Music Interviews
12:03 pm
Sat August 25, 2012

Chilly Gonzales: Pianist, Rapper, Provocateur

Originally published on Sat August 25, 2012 8:16 pm

The musician known as Chilly Gonzales is difficult to introduce, if only because no one aspect of his career defines him. The Canadian-born performer has shown there's very little he's afraid to try.

To wit: Gonzales has collaborated with Iggy Pop, Daft Punk, Peaches, Feist and Drake. In Montreal, he led a string-quartet mash-up of "Another One Bites the Dust" and the theme to the TV show Knight Rider, while wearing a bathrobe and slippers on stage. His song "Never Stop" became the ubiquitous soundtrack to the launch of the iPad. He's recorded an orchestral rap album.

"Rap is my only modern love," Gonzales tells NPR's Laura Sullivan. "I think it's the only real game in town. I want to be a man of my time, and being a pianist, it was a bit hard to find my way in. And then I discovered rap and realized that the rapper's attitude can be applied to almost anything, including being a virtuoso pianist."

Speaking of which: In 2009, Gonzales shattered the Guinness World Record for longest solo piano performance, pulling off a concert that lasted 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds.

"I wanted to do 29, 30 hours — just go a bit over so it was even more extreme," he says. "But at some point, my body just gave out. It's as if my body made a deal with me, and as soon as I broke the existing 26-hour record, my body was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's done.'"

Born Jason Charles Beck, and known to his friends as Gonzo, Chilly Gonzales is frank about the ways his ego plays into his art. (Case in point: He often likes to be introduced as "Chilly Gonzales, the Musical Genius.")

His latest endeavor is an album of solo piano compositions, titled Solo Piano II. The pieces are short — less than three minutes each, for the most part. Gonzales says that's a reaction to what he perceives as a staid attitude among jazz and classical pianists.

"They like to hide behind the idea that they're preserving something," he says. "I don't believe in that. I think you have to adapt things. I make two-and-a-half-minute songs on the piano with the attitude of a pop musician or a rapper — occasionally actually rapping, even.

"I didn't want to be one of these people trying to preserve something," Gonzales adds, "because when you preserve something, you kind of admit it's dead. But if you adapt it, it has a chance to survive."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. And it's time now for music. And today's story features a true eccentric, a pianist with a long resume and a fake name. To his parents, he is Jason Beck. To his fans, he is Chilly Gonzales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Let's just take off some of Chilly's oddities and accomplishments here. On stage, he sometimes leads a string quartet version of the theme to the TV show "Knight Rider" while wearing a bathrobe and slippers.

CHILLY GONZALES: Well, I always have a bathrobe and slippers, but the masterpieces I play vary.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: This song "Never Stop" helped introduce the world to the iPad.

GONZALES: Yes. Three very simple notes repeated over and over again became my most heard piece of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER STOP")

SULLIVAN: He recorded an orchestral rap album.

GONZALES: There's always a rap beat playing in my head, even when I play a very old school French impressionist number.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERVILLAIN")

GONZALES: (Singing) Harmony's French but the melancholy melody's so Slavic. Whether I rap fast or slow the rap flows polysyllabic.

SULLIVAN: He set the Guinness World Record for the longest solo piano performance - more than 27 hours straight.

GONZALES: I wanted to do 29, 30 hours. But at some point, my body just gave out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONZALES: And on Tuesday, Chilly Gonzales releases a new album simply titled "Solo Piano II."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE KEYS")

SULLIVAN: Chilly Gonzales joins me mid tour from Edinburgh, Scotland. Chilly, welcome.

GONZALES: Great to be here.

SULLIVAN: Or should I be calling you Chilly Gonzales, the Musical Genius? I heard you like that.

GONZALES: The musical genius is a way of letting people know that I'm, you know, not like other musicians. I grew up with musical science as my gift. It doesn't mean I have good taste. It doesn't mean anything, except that I literally have that skill. And to bend that into something that I could turn into a career, where I can be a man of my time and have my generation actually listening to my music was kind of the goal of the last 10 to 15 years since I started.

SULLIVAN: I've heard you say that before where you want to be a piano player of your time. What does that mean?

GONZALES: Things like having piano in the iPad commercial. It might seem very basic, but to me, it means I am a man of my time. You know, my piano has been associated with the iconic technological gadget of our time, and yet there I was with a piano. You know, I live in Europe. And I'm happy to be talking to America, because in America, of course, you know, entertainment kind of rules the roost. And in Europe, it's different. Europeans invented art music, and Americans invented entertainment.

I'm born in Montreal, so I'm kind of a product of both. And as a piano player, I figured, well, that's the European side, the old school musical science. But I just couldn't stand to live in an ivory tower. Most piano players these days, of course, are probably in the jazz or classical worlds. They like to hide behind the idea they're preserving something. I don't believe in that. I think you have to adapt to things, because when you preserve something, you kind of admit it's dead. But if you adapt it, it has a chance to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Would you be offended if I said that certain pieces remind me a bit of the music Vince Guaraldi wrote for the "Peanuts" TV specials?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: I mean, if you put "Kenaston" next to Vince Guaraldi's "Skating," I mean, they both capture something delicate, something sort of tense. I mean, they almost feel like they're both reminiscing somehow.

GONZALES: Well, by the way, Kenaston, in particular, is the name of the street I grew up on in Montreal. So, obviously, there was something nostalgic about it for me, as well, for me to give it that title. And I grew up, of course, watching a lot of "Peanuts," and Vince Guaraldi, huge musical hero, among many. I think it's safe to say that he was a musical genius who became an entertainer as well. So, yeah, absolutely. Thank you for the compliment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: My guest is pianist Chilly Gonzales. His latest album is called "Solo Piano II." I'm wondering when you sit down to write these pieces, are you just sort of working it out in the moment, or are you writing it down on paper and playing it over and over and over again and, you know, having each song be completely independent of each other?

GONZALES: It's more the second version, except I do not write it down. I mostly wait for the songs that won't leave me alone to just be persistent enough that I'll finish them.

SULLIVAN: Is it hard to remember what you've just written?

GONZALES: Well, if it's hard to remember, I guess it wasn't good.

SULLIVAN: Is that true?

GONZALES: Yeah. You just make music all the time, and the stuff that won't let you alone is the good stuff. That's the stuff that people are going to connect to, because it won't leave you alone. You're humming it all the time when you're in the airplane. You know, every time you sit down at the piano, your fingers end up on that same A-flat minor chord. And you - at one point, you realize you have a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: You know, I've seen you play in so many dingy rock clubs, and you just seem like you're having the best time. And then you've also played in these incredible, immaculate, enormous concert halls, and you also seem like you're having a fantastic time. And what I really want to know is which one do you prefer?

GONZALES: The theaters. I think there's more of a contrast. In a rock club, the audience there is probably used to going to that place. It's the place that they barfed in the corner last week seeing Franz Ferdinand. You know, that's what a rock club generally is. If I can bring that weird mix of hipsters, hip-hop fans, indie rockers and non-downloading old people, let's say, if I can bring them all together in a theater, then everyone is experiencing what makes me different and similar to what they would see in that theater.

And, you know, in Europe, I play them much more often. I mean, the dingy clubs is largely a function of the fact that I'm still totally unknown in North America. I just don't have the options to play in nice places very often, to be honest.

SULLIVAN: Are you saying that the Europeans enjoy your music more than Americans do, appreciate it more?

GONZALES: I think so much of what I do is about bringing a certain - for the Europeans - counterintuitive, refreshing, almost capitalist way of seeing music with audience orientation and really going against the cliches of what European musicians are supposed to be like. You know, this idea that the entertainer - look at me, look at me, jazz hands, all that stuff, you know?

And in a way, bringing that to Europe is something that grabs people. They can see them how I see them. I'm still working on the best way to deal with North America, because I do have a lot of, you know, I do see myself in that classic David Bowie-Trent Reznor song, "I'm Afraid of Americans." I'm afraid of the Americans' judgment on me, because I get to be the crazy North American to the Europeans. But when I come back, I don't have that advantage. So I'm working on it.

SULLIVAN: That's Chilly Gonzales.

GONZALES: Get off my back. I'm working on it.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: We're going to let you do that. That's Chilly Gonzales. His latest album is called "Solo Piano II," and you could hear a few of the tracks on our website, nprmusic.org. Thank you so much, Chilly, for joining us.

GONZALES: Oh, it was really my pleasure. I'm already feeling less afraid of Americans just from doing this interview.

SULLIVAN: That is what we're aiming for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: As we've been reporting throughout the program, the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, died today. In a statement this evening, President Barack Obama said Neil's spirit of discovery lives on in all of the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown, including those who are ensuring that we reach higher and go further in space.

And fellow astronaut and partner in flight, Buzz Aldrin, gives this remembrance in a statement: Whenever I look at the moon, it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I realized that even though we are farther away from Earth than two humans have ever been, we were not alone. Armstrong was 82.

And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. And we're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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