Chilly Gonzales the Musical Genius on Failure, Satire, and Working With Drake
You may know him as Feist's or Peaches' producer. Or perhaps you read about him in the Guinness Book of World Records, in which he holds the title for longest piano solo (27 hours, to be precise). If you're a fan of Drake, then you've heard him playing piano on "Marvin's Room." You could have seen him on YouTube in a piano battle with Andrew W.K., or heard his song "Never Stop" on an iPad commercial. You might regard him either as a rapper or a virtuoso jazz pianist. Or, as he is wont to call himself on stage, you may simply know him as "Chilly Gonzales, the musical genius."
Gonzales plays this Friday, Nov. 2, at the Swedish American Music Hall. His shows can be described many ways: cartoonish, dandy-ish, vaudevillian, or like Philip Glass meeting Andy Kaufman. Gonzo knows what he wants (your attention) and isn't afraid to try any number of outlandish tactics to get it. Typically dressed in bedroom slippers and a silk robe embroidered with his initials, he sometimes stands on the piano, playing it with his feet, and other times plays the bongos and raps.
As grandiose as his stage presence is, Gonzales doesn't shy away from talking about failure, which seems to be the driving force behind his unstoppable race to fame. Eight years after his acclaimed album Solo Piano, Chilly has released Solo Piano II, and moved from Paris to Cologne, Germany. We sat down with the ever-fascinating multi-faceted performer last time he was in San Francisco to catch up.
Tell me about Solo Piano II. Why did you do another piano album and how did you approach this one differently than the first?
I knew since the surprise success of Solo Piano that I would do a part two. The purity of one human on one instrument is a great mode for me to come back to. It's the essence of what allows me to do all the other things I do, amateur rapping to wearing a bathrobe onstage. All of that wouldn't be possible without the piano. I had to wait these eight years though, to make absolutely certain that I had something new to say alone at the piano. I wanted to avoid a "photocopy" of the first album, so I took the time to feel as if my piano playing had evolved enough to warrant the sequel.
Can you talk about the Guinness World Record, how you got the idea, and how it came to fruition?
I needed to change the subject from an album project that really didn't go like I had planned, which was an album called Soft Power. It fell under the radar four years after Solo Piano. It's a bit more easy listening-influenced, I guess you'd say. The customer is always right, and there was something about the musical shift. I guess I went away from the fundamentals of what Chilly Gonzales was supposed to be, which is a musical genius and competitive, so the Guinness World Record was just a way to distill those two elements of being a prodigious musician as well as having this sort of eye of the tiger to achieve something like that.
It's expensive, you have to have doctors and notarized witnesses and the whole deal. But in the end Guinness was there and had the plaque, and it changed the subject from the last thing I did being kind of a failed album that my core audience didn't like and a new audience didn't cotton to. It suddenly woke me up and I rebooted and restarted what my manager and I call "Project Anglo," which is to get back into the Anglophone world, which I was neglecting. I was very France- and Germany-centric, so I started going to London every few weeks and started to come much more often to the States, start again in new countries where I don't have a lot of juice, where I have to suffer through conditions that I've become accustomed to in Europe. I'm very spoiled. To suddenly have to be back at the bottom of the totem pole, opening, staying in crappy hotels, all of that is part of the territory for rebooting.
Do you think that your popularity in Europe has risen more because of the time that you've spent there, or is there an innate difference between what Europeans appreciate versus Americans?
It's probably a bit of both. I did move there and it all happened there, so of course I was in their face and so able to do more. I'm a real student of Western European classical music. That's the thing I know the best, so it makes sense that it would strike a chord there. But there are other ways in, like through personality. As I do more in Anglophone places, I see that maybe music's not the first way in, but I can bring them there. That's my job, to find out what the way in is.
Next: Gonzales on his love for rap.