Published Sep 26, 2010Chilly Gonzales is wearing a bathrobe and slippers, literally piano thrashing on stage during an intimate performance at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio. This musical throwdown between traditional reverence and contemporary contempt would be totally mesmerizing if British singer Jamie Liddell wasn't wailing and hip-rocking distractingly on stage with him. It's merely a cameo ― Liddell dashes after the song to get to his own show ― but lands the loudest cheers. "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jamie Liddell," Gonzales faux-gripes, stealing his audience back with laughs.
Grandstanding acquiescence to shiny peers is a shtick for Gonzales, stage name of Canadian-born, Paris resident Jason Beck. Between songs from August-released album The Ivory Tower ― the soundtrack, produced by Berliner Boys Noize, for a feature-length film of the same name ― Gonzales heightens the disaffected act via existential monologues and guitar smashing. A self-appointed "evil genius" ― also a classically trained pianist, rapper, and one of the stars of The Ivory Tower film ― Gonzales pals around with and produces for a well-curated list of Canadian musicians (Feist, Peaches, Tiga) and is, arguably, the least definable amongst them.
But before obscure popularity, there was a stint of moderate Canadian success with alt-rock band Son in the '90s. "Looking back, when you hear yourself sing it's like seeing a bad photo of yourself, when you go 'Oh, look at that haircut!' or something," he jokes. "The actual music I can totally stand behind. [But] I was basically trying to deal with giving up something artistic to gain something commercial ― and that's a false choice," he says. "You can make art and commerce work together; it means you have to create, not just the music, but everything around it from the image to the marketing to the strategy."
For Gonzales, this wasn't possible with the Canadian model where he felt musicians downplayed their ambition to the public ― something he did for a while too. "[With Son], the problem wasn't the music," he says. "What I had to struggle with was, if I was going to make this my job, coming to terms was accepting certain things like the supremacy of the audience."
The path to change became more apparent after meeting Peaches and Feist around 1996. Frustration at the lack of encouragement also gave way to fun as the group of musicians; bolstering each other developed their characters. "[These are] long-term commitments you make to work with these people," he explains, noting projects with both are currently underway. "We work as team members for the other's project, and, once in a while, we ask them to be a part of our projects. Everyone's a solo artist so no one's ego can ever get bruised."
On tour with Peaches in 1999, they stumbled upon the "bohemian paradise" of Berlin and he decided to relocate, becoming Chilly Gonzales in the process. The move and new moniker brought on a reinvented persona of "overcooked ambition," and what Gonzales describes as his own "hilarious and possibly embarrassing" character defects. "That's the stuff that, in Canada, I was suppressing and didn't feel right."
It's so obviously embedded in his rap; an at-times earnest, oft-cheesy oeuvre comprising three full-length albums for German label Kitty-Yo, with a fourth due next year. But the persona has also sprouted an intense theatricality that's both admirable and a scream. "I had a really early association that if you could make people laugh, they're open in that moment," he explains. "They're giving up a certain control [and] I can reach into the nervous system and hit them with some powerful harmony or melody."
A childhood-bred thirst for competition led to the capture of a still-unbroken world record for longest solo-artist performance (27 hours, 3 minutes, 44 seconds) in May 2009 and a piano duel versus Andrew W.K. that year ("I knew he'd have to say yes"). Ego, he notes, is the culprit behind his spirited stamina. "You do two weeks of interviews leading up being like 'I'm gonna do it,' and your ego hears that and he is not going to let you not do it," Gonzales says matter-of-factly, his focus palpable even over the phone.
"You get adrenaline for 27 hours straight and it's very traumatizing on the bodyâ¦You don't just sleep three days, catch up and it's over." Months of recuperation are necessary, he explains, but the resulting trauma leads to epiphanies. "When I woke upâ¦ I realized I had to revisit the world."
The renewed creativity brought about The Ivory Tower concept, of which the mostly-instrumental album came first. "You meet a lot of musicians and say you'll try things out but sometimes it doesn't happen or sometimes it happens and it's a bit underwhelming," he says of teaming with Boys Noize. "He works fast, like I do, and we were able to get six or seven demos together that are actually really close to the finished product." The resulting, long-distance crafted output ― a mix of jingle-y piano-pop and sophisticated electronica ― gets compared to candy. "It's like a Reese's Peanut Butter cup; you hear the Gonzales part and you hear the Boys Noize part, and it just tastes good together."
Outsourcing production duties freed up extra energy for a movie, something Gonzales has always wanted to do and an extension of the Hollywood approach to his career. Directed by Adam Traynor, The Ivory Tower follows two chess-playing brothers; Hershell, the savant, played by Gonzales, and Thaddeus, an endorsement-happy poster boy enacted by Tiga.
"I chose the world of chess because I find it fascinating and it's very competitive," Gonzales explains. "I thought if we did the sports movie structure and applied it to chess, it could be very funny." Shot in Canada ― "my shoulders drop about ten centimetres when I get here because I'm home" ― The Ivory Tower is a clash of ideas; humorous and arty, discussing utopia and narcissism. Though written by a French screenwriter (Céline Sciamma), it's conceptually all Gonzales, a visual glimpse into his ideas on entertainment.
But piecing together his own path as an entertainer, from CanCon to film acting Gonzales brings it back to his youth-honed craft. "The only thing I'm really, really fucking good at is the piano," he says. "Everything else I just kind of try and get away with. Why? Because, in the end, when I get on that piano, I know that no one else can fuck with me."