You might know “Chilly Gonzales” as the madman who recently set a world record for the longest solo-artist performance (playing the piano straight for 27 hours, 44 mins. and 33 secs.), but it turns out Gonzales has been setting the standard for outlandish musical performances for some time now, and isn’t slowing down anytime soon. The then-humble pianist crept onto the scene in 1996 with the EP Thriller, became disillusioned with Toronto’s music scene, and promptly left Canada to embark on a mission for international acclaim.
Now, almost a dozen albums later, with the likes of Drake sampling him, and Leslie Feist as his right-hand (wo)man, he’s certainly done something right. His style, a hybrid of electronica, rap and classical music manages to parody while paying tribute to all aspects; he’s able to freestyle rap about testicles while delivering a hauntingly beautiful piano solo, and does so in good taste. It’s a testament to Gonzales’ creative versatility that even rapping and staging quirky keyboard performances occupy only a small fraction of his musical inventory. The man is simply a musical enigma.
We recently caught up with the self-proclaimed “musical supervillain” at the Mod Club for his long-awaited return to Toronto. Sporting his token ensemble of white satin gloves and a souped-up bathrobe, he sat down with us to discuss the notorious live performances, his distaste for opening acts, and why he’s just not a Drake fan.
Welcome back to Toronto!
Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here, I think. I did play here about a year and a half ago, with my band, it was a very difficult show. It was tough to come back, but I’m here.
It’s been just over a decade that you moved away from us.
Yeah I was out of here in 1998. I went to Berlin, and then I went to Paris in 2003. I am now a proud Paris resident.
What is it exactly that prompted you to leave Toronto so abruptly?
Well I’ve always seen myself as a musical supervillain. And every supervillain has an origin, you know, a moment where lightening hits their lab or they’re bitten by an insect or they had some traumatic experience where they wanted to take over the world, and rule over it with evil-doing.
So you felt like Berlin was your lab in a sense?
Well, actually Toronto was the scene of the crime that turned me into the supervillain, and then I had to go elsewhere. So, I’ve always seen Toronto as the monster that spat me out, so to speak. And the trauma of the story was to do with the fact that I could never be appreciated in Toronto. I felt like I deserved recognition that I wasn’t getting, so I left. In the process of leaving, I built up various musical superpowers and performance powers.
Do you feel like it would be different now, at the scene of the crime, a decade later?
It’s hard to know, in retrospect. I don’t really like to ask “what if,” but I do sometimes think, “You know, it took leaving to get the strength and the recognition.” So I guess part of it is the strength to leave somewhere — it gives you a certain advantage. You’re all of a sudden something exotic when you’re somewhere else. Because, believe it or not, a Canadian can be something exotic in some parts of the world. And so I used all that to my advantage, and started to get the recognition I felt I rightly deserved in Berlin. I’ve enjoyed it profusely for the past eight or nine years, since I put out my first album.
So what brings you back here?
I have slowly, with heavy pain in my heart, come back to play in Canada. More so in Montreal at the beginning because of the European vibe there, and then more and more in Toronto, culminating in the Massey Hall show where I opened for Feist.
On that note, you’re obviously a fan of collaborating with Canadian musicians. Do you keep track of Canadian talent? Are you a Drake fan?
Yeah, of course I know who Drake is.
He sampled a song of yours, “The Tourist,” from your album Solo Piano on his most recent mixtape, have you heard it?
Really? Drake sampled me? I don’t know how I feel about that. I mean, that Solo Piano album has reached across many genres – it’s given me shout-outs from the hip-hop world all the way to the classical world. I’m pleasantly surprised whenever it makes its way to an unknown genre. Although, I must confess, I’m not a Drake fan. I guess Canadians should be proud that they finally have the closest thing they’ll ever have to a credible hip-hop personality, but I’m sorry, I’m just not a fan.
Your genre has been described as a mix of things from “Ambient Jazz” to “Classical.” If you could clear this up for everyone right now, is there one defining genre you want to go by?
Yes, actually. I would call my genre “entertainer music,” in that I put the personality ahead of the music. And where the personality goes, that’s where the music follows. So, I try to think of what my message should be, I try to think of the story I want to tell before I think of the music. That’s to cover up a bit of a weakness of mine, which is that I have a very scientific approach to music. I always say I’m a musical genius, and people take it as an ironic boast, but I truly have a gift for understanding what’s happening in the technical aspect of music making — the harmony and the melody. That also gives me a weakness when it comes to taste, because I can find value in anything from a technical standpoint. I don’t really like anything just based on the music alone, which puts me at odds with most people, whose tastes are usually the sound of what they’re hearing. What makes me like something is their image, if someone makes great music but they have what I consider to be a faulty message, then forget about it.
So you’re saying you don’t like Drake because he has a faulty image.
Absolutely. But not just him. I will write off a whole band just based on seeing one photo. And that doesn’t make me superficial; that just means I have a different value system. If I like someone and am intrigued by their story, then I will find a way to like their music. I’m incredibly close-minded and I like so few things based on their image. That leaves me with a very small pool of musicians I respect: most of them are people I’ve worked with, or people I have come into close contact with. So as soon as I see someone who seems to share similar value systems, I try to seek them out. I’ve been very lucky in who I’ve been able to work with-people like Feist, Peaches, Jamie Lidell, Daft Punk. Once in a while I see someone who I don’t know so well but I love what they’re doing; Andrew WK is the newest one. Do you know him?
Yes, I love Andrew WK! I heard you recently threatened him to a Piano Battle. How did that go down?
Oh. Well, I inflicted musical spankings on him. I still admire him, though. I heard he was making a piano album, so I sought him out through a journalist I knew would be interviewing him, and made a video to give him. Knowing that he has the same value system as me, I knew that he would see in that video the scenes of a fellow traveler. And I knew, well, suspected strongly, that he wouldn’t be able to turn me down. And he didn’t! I battled him, and he suffered the consequences. But the audience got to see something really special, because I think what we did was something very rare and unique for my first New York show in eight years. Whenever I see someone who excites me like that, I try to seek them out. It doesn’t always work. I try to work with rappers that I admire, but they don’t always like me.
Your records are so drastically different from one another. Would you say you’ve garnered a different audience with each album, or that you have more of a cult audience? Do you have specific intentions with each album?
I must admit something: I’m not very good at making albums. You know, I really excel on stage. But when I’m in the studio…you don’t really know what you’re aiming for. It’s a time lapse of months before you’ve reached a target. It’s pretty hard to put the effort in, because you know you can’t control the result at all; you don’t know when or how people are going to listen to it. That’s why when I’m in the studio, I tend to keep it short and sweet. I feel like if I give it a burst of energy, chances are that it will work just as much as if I labor for a year on it. But the key is really to just surround yourself with other people who are good at it. For instance, Feist makes an album, and for her that’s a really important moment. So when I work with her, I find a role to help her do it and that’s why I enjoy producing with other people. But fundamentally, I am a creature of the stage. That said, you can’t control who gets your albums. For Solo Piano there was definitely an older crowd who got into it, there was lots of classical. That’s one of the reasons it sold better as well; old people don’t know how to download songs.
Your recent World Record — playing the piano for 27 hours straight — is quite a feat. How did you prepare for such a performance?
Well the previous record was 26 hours, so I knew I would have to hit 27 hours. But it wasn’t about coffee or substances, I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep while playing piano. I knew that my toughest challenge would be to just make it entertaining. Because you know people sit there for three hours and think they’ve been taken for a ride. But then there are 24 hours left, and I had to be 100% focused. That’s why most of what I played was audience suggestions. I would sit there and let people yell out songs they wanted to hear and then I would play them. And that’s why my ego and my musical memory — my two strongest weapons in this entertainment war — came in really handy for that particular performance. I entertained. If they’re not entertained, you’re failing. That’s the capitalist law of entertainment: the customer is always right. If they’re not enjoying it, it’s on me. I could never blame an audience for a bad show.
- Gigi Rabnett
(photos by Geoffrey Knott)