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Interview: Chilly Gonzales

Where to start with Canadian ivory tinkler Chilly Gonzales? His famed piano talk shows, where he plays up the role of Jewish supervillain MC with aplomb? Or perhaps his long running love affair with electroclash and its offspring electro house? Or his Guinness world record for longest piano solo? (27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds, if you’re asking). It doesn’t matter really – the man is a leftfield genius, a talented musician, and, above all, an entertainer.

His new album, the Ivory Tower, is on the verge of release, and features German electro producer Boys Noize aka Alex Ridha on production duties. As well as showcasing Gonzales’ mastery on the piano and Ridha’s impressively subtle production nous, it also contains some of the best lyrics in recent memory, on lead single “I Am Europe”: (“I’m socialist lingerie, I’m diplomatic techno, I’m gay pastry and racist cappuccino” ). Juno Plus caught up with Chilly to discuss Ivory Tower, playing to sloppy ears and why Tiga is a ham.

Your new album Ivory Tower is almost ready for release, and features Alex Ridha aka Boys Noize on production duties. How did that come about?

It’s the first time I’ve let someone make what I’d call the big musical decisions. The colour and the tone of the record were decided by Boys Noize, and that freed me up to focus on other things, like the Ivory Tower film. I find it stressful being in the trenches when making an album, asking ‘Who am I?’ I’ve always been more comfortable on the stage, not in the studio. So here I asked Alex, ‘Hey who am I?’ and let him answer the question.

And how do you think it went?

I think it’s unanimous that he’s one of the most exciting electronic producers of the moment, so I was delighted to have him on board. I flirted with electro a while ago and I kind of lost touch. I first heard about him when he remixed “My Moon My Man” which I wrote with Feist, and from there I had this idea that Boys Noize was capable of much more than was evident from his club based music and his albums. And my suspicions were correct – he’s an amazing musician and now he’s part of the musical family.

You have formed a neat little crew with Boys Noize and Erol Alkan – in terms of sharing around remixes and production duties.

Well Erol was my first sponsor in the UK, he used to relentlessly get me out to his Trash night and let me inflict my message on the crowd. He’s part of the world outside France that I have rediscovered in recent times. I’m still in the game after 10 years and I don’t take that for granted. I’m meeting a lot of new people today who take me back to my world a decade ago. The same applies to Boys Noize – I feel like I could have met him 10 years ago, um, until I found out that he wasn’t actually around the music scene then…

You spent a lot of time living in France, is that right? One of the tracks on your new album is called “I Am Europe”, and has some superb lyrics…

I have been living in Europe for a dozen years. I see myself as European. And this is not a ‘I hate Europe song’ about rude waiters; because I am part of the EU now and I feel qualified to criticise it in an affection manner. I mean most of my time is split between being on the road, or being in London, Paris or Berlin. That may sound pretentious, but when you think of London, there’s west London, east and north, that’s like three different cities in itself. So instead of spending two hours trying to get from one side of London to the other, you can spend two and a half hours going from one side of Europe to the other, by jumping on an Easyjet flight or a Eurostar. I know you need discipline and money to do that, but hey, I’m Canadian so it’s easy for me to change my identity.

“With all due respect to Tiga – and I think he’ll agree with this statement – but he is like me. He is a ham”

Tell me about the film version of Ivory Tower.

It was a different kind of experience for me. My main role was as a producer. I had to choose the people to act, I chose the guy who directed it, and those are big creative decisions. I’d be just as happy to produce a movie that I didn’t act in or didn’t make the music for. But the whole idea of making a movie is a military operation. I first thought about it when Alex and I started sending stuff back and forth for the album. I was also addicted to online chess at this stage, but it’s not like I can sing songs about chess, right? You can’t sing about chess – it is cerebral but at the same time relentless, so that is why the music is mostly instrumental and so intense. But what the chess theme allows is to free you up from working within the parameters of the pop format. Chess builds slowly, it’s engrossing and you can’t switch off from it. Alex is like that as a producer, he’s not a square or linear electronic music producer – he sits there playing with his drum machine and thinks outside the square. So it freed me up from the pop format, which was on the menu for the Solo Piano album.

You’ve got a cast that includes Tiga, Feist, Peaches – all great performers but with little acting experience. How were things on the set and who was the surprise packet in terms of acting prowess?

With all due respect to Tiga, and I think he’ll agree with this statement – but he is like me – he is a ham. Me and Tiga are what you would call attention seekers. I had a role in the movie as a more brooding artist type, which was fine with me because I was that a few years ago but turned my back on it. But the true actor among us is Peaches. I work better in front of a crowd, I’m not prepared for the camera. Peaches can do both – she just lets the camera into her face, I don’t even know how to put it. What can I say, she’s the Michael Caine of the movie. I’m more the Ben Stiller.

And can you give us a loose run down on the plot?

Me and Tiga are in love with the same woman – she’s our trophy, so to speak. And she has to get out of that cycle. It’s the classic sports comedy. It premiered at the Locarno film festival, and there will also be screenings in London. I’m hoping it will get shown at a few festivals, and, who knows, maybe even get picked up to be played in cinemas for a week or so. So then you can get your popcorn and check it out.

You’ve got a slew of festival gigs lined up this summer – how do you think your sound will translate onto the big stage?

My new festival show will be bigger. Now my solution might seem a bit obvious, it might have people asking “is that the right thing to do?” but I’m adding two drummers. It’s mostly in the hope they will make it loud enough so people won’t talk over my piano playing. For Bestival, I’ll have two piano players and two drummers. Who knows then I might get massive festival slots and use eight piano players and eight drummers.

Which do you enjoy more, the festival slots or the intimate shows?

I enjoy the intimate venues more – in that environment you get to bring people into your world. I’m the master of the 200 seated theatre show. You have virgin ears to work with. At a festival, you have sloppy ears, there are other stages and things to attract them. You have a sloppy ear and you don’t really want to fuck it – I’d rather fuck a virgin ear. But I’ll make do with people’s sloppy seconds, and with two drummers in my live show it may just work: double penetration.

In May 2009 you broke a world record for the longest solo-artist performance with a total time of 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds, breaking a record set by Prasanna Gudi. Why did you decide to tackle the previous record?

I’d been living in the shadow of the Soft Power failure. I don’t fear failure: I’ve dealt with it several times in my life. But what I needed to do what say, ‘OK – I’m calling this a failrure, I’ll make it part of my story and move on’. I wanted to do something that was truly and underdogs victory. I like to wallow in my failure for a few months, learn from it, analyse it, and then move on. So it came to spring time in 2009, and I thought I didn’t want to be remembered as that guy who made that strange easy listening album and is good on the piano. I want people to say, I remember Chilly, that crazy egotistical piano player who broke the world record…it helped me refocus my energy, and turn a negative into a positive.

“I don’t fear failure: I’ve dealt with it several times in my life. But what I needed to do what say, ‘OK – I’m calling this a failrure, I’ll make it part of my story and move on’”

Last year you also challenged fellow pianist Andrew W.K. to a piano battle at Joe’s Pub in New York. Now that ended in a cloud of controversy – you threw a gold necklace at Andrew, distracting him long enough to claim victory. Will there be a rematch?

We are working on a London show for our rematch, we figure that will be the best place to stage it. We did see each other actually and I apologised, and I showed him I don’t need to hog the limelight all the time. But come the rematch – all bets are off. He’s a great showman and I think for sheer energy he beats me. But c’mon, let’s talk about the music – he has no chance. I was going easy on him, it was in New York and he’s this avant garde performer who’s very popular there. But come the rematch, it’s going to be a holocaust.

What new adventures have you got on the horizon now?

I’m currently in front of my computer, preparing my demos for a new rap album. Getting back into the Anglophone world has reignited my interest in rapping – so expect some more verbal diarrhoea coming soon.

Any last words Chilly?

It’s been a great year – Peaches, Tiga and myself are celebrating 10 year anniversaries of electroclash. We’re all still around, which in itself is amazing. I’m not sure were Fischerspooner and Chicks on Speed are, but you can see the rest of us on the big screen in 2011.

Interview: Aaron Coultate