Published Aug 21, 2010There are many pleasant surprises on Eric Chenaux's latest album, Warm Weather with Ryan Driver, but the most striking is his use of a nylon-string guitar as his primary instrument for these achingly lovely songs. From his teenaged years in the roaring, legendary post-punk band Phleg Camp (with Sean Dean of the Sadies and drummer/producer Gavin Brown) to his latter day work as a captivating, soft-spoken balladeer and experimental improviser/composer, Chenaux is renowned for his provocative manipulation of a beautiful, electric guitar.
"I started to tour alone a lot and my electric guitar is quite heavy for train travel," Chenaux explains, sitting on the balcony at the rear of his Toronto apartment. "It's a '62 Gibson 175 that has been manhandled heavily by me putting things on it that take away a lot of its 175-ness, its jazziness. In touring solo, I realized that I don't play acoustic as well as I do electric because I'm limited in my vocabulary on it. I wanted to figure out how I could translate things I'd gotten used to on the electric and place my attention on the nylon-string guitar to see what might happen. So, thinking not so much about this record, but about a longer process of translating material from one instrument that's highly idiosyncratic to another."
In the course of a conversation about his approach as a guitarist, Chenaux repeatedly utters some form of the word "translation," as though he and the instrument are communicating through some nonexistent interpreter. To watch Chenaux perform today (or even in Phleg Camp live clips online) is to understand the intimacy he values in his relationship with music. He may sing on his own or in bands like the Reveries, but when he stops and the guitar takes over, he cajoles it to speak its own piece, wresting guttural, temperamental sounds and tones with picking and distinctive use of pedals, like his spring loaded Morley wah with its unique sweep, a Holy Grail reverb that produces a huge wash, and a Z. Vex Fuzz Factory distortion with a crazy sustain that Chenaux loves, particularly because it makes his guitar sound like bagpipes.
"Whenever I try a new instrument like a mandolin, at first there's a lot of reverence for its history," Chenaux explains. "Over 15 years with the 175, that slips away and something else happens. At first, the instrument tells you what to do but then, at some point, you stop listening to it or you start hearing it as an object without so much of a history."
Chenaux came to play guitar as a child, with little interest in learning any particular style or type of song. He experimented with it instinctually before taking lessons for a couple of years. Today, he is still interested in challenging his own notions of what a guitar is capable of sounding like. "I don't use the pickups on my electric guitar," he says. "I use a Capsule microphone that's on the headstock. There's a highly sought-after, late '50s or early '60s Humbucker pickup on it that's worth more than the guitar and I never use it. I put a $90 Danelectro Lipstick pickup on it, pretty much with tape. It wasn't a reactionary thing. I bought the guitar thinking that's what I wanted to play but it was a little too full spectrum or fat for me. You do these things to amuse yourself and I succeeded.
"I also put a Bigsby [tremolo bar] on it, which no guitar shop in Toronto would do for me," he continues. "They told me it'd cave in and you can't do that. So I just went home and drilled it into my guitar and it's been fine. I've actually been thinking of putting a Bigsby on my nylon-string guitar, which again, no one would do. I think it's a great idea."
As a guitar player and an artist, Chenaux is more of a conduit for ideas and, in his bold inventions as a performer, he's keen to achieve some manner of musical transcendence. "The greatest hope is that you don't know what you'd be hoping for ― that something is happening that is unknown. How people listen to music is so strange and they hear what they hear. You want to create music that allows for that space or makes space instead of filling it."