Vic Chesnutt RIP - A Recent Quietus Interview
, December 29th, 2009 11:50
It was with sadness that we learned that this time the rumours were true and that Vic Chesnutt had died on Xmas Day. Wyndham Wallace talked to him a few months ago, this feature was the result
Vic Chesnutt: the skinny dude in a wheelchair with the spindly voice, right? The paraplegic folk singer Michael Stipe liked, yeah? Put out a few records that people wrote about in the nineties, didn’t he? Yeah, that’s the guy. You nailed it. Stick that new CD of his into your stereo — if you can be bothered — and listen to him ramble again: a barely plucked nylon-string guitar, a thin reedy vocal bemoaning the fact that its owner is a coward, a little baroque violin and cello wavering in the background . . .
But hang on. What the fuck is this? After only a hundred seconds Chesnutt’s increasingly desperate voice is giving way to what sounds like a Glenn Branca concerto, drums exploding like roadside bombs, and what seemed at first like a song of self-pity has transmogrified into a roar of fury and frustration. Three minutes in and Chesnutt’s vocals are threatening to tear his throat out as guitars rage around him, feedback leaking from the speakers, drums struck so heavily their skins burst.
Reach for the CD sleeve: some of these names sound familiar. Efrim Menuck? Wasn’t he that fella in Godspeed You! Black Emperor? And aren’t some of these other folk in Silver Mount Zion with him? And who’s that? Guy Picciotto? The dude from Fugazi? I thought Vic Chesnutt was a folk singer? Isn’t he a folk singer?
“That’s where I come from,” he agrees on the phone from his home in Athens, Georgia early one September morning. “My songs are pretty standard folk song chords and everything. And I feel that it’s folk rock, nothing really fancy or anything like that. My grandad taught me how to play guitar, his Mom taught him how to play guitar. My grandma and my Mom wrote lyrics for my granddad’s folk songs and for other songs. I’m a folk song dude, you know?”
But Vic Chesnutt’s At The Cut is no ordinary folk record. Its roots may be tangled up in that heritage, and it’s far from afraid of stripping things right back to porch-song simplicity, but this is not the Vic Chesnutt that the media wrote about so glowingly in the mid ‘90s, seduced by his raggedy voice, his hard luck story and his authentic southern country background. Of course you probably never heard those records: Little (1990), West Of Rome (1991), Drunk (1993) and Is The Actor Happy? (1995) never really sold in their millions, despite the endorsement of Michael Stipe, who produced the first two. But perhaps you heard his Capitol Records debut, About To Choke (1996), in the wake of the second Sweet Relief charity project which saw the diverse likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Madonna, Victoria Williams and Mary Margaret O’Hara cover his songs, although since he was dropped shortly afterwards it would seem that not many more records crossed the counter that time either. But given the nature of the coverage these records received – justifiably, given their sound – you’d be forgiven for having few reasons to doubt that Chesnutt had ever fled the folk nest.
Chesnutt, however, is a contrary, often stubborn figure, permanently restless, constantly seeking new challenges, and there has always been way more to him than that apparently frail paraplegic that the media embraced for a few years. In 1995 and again in 2002 he collaborated with jam band Widespread Panic under the name Brute, while in 1998 he hooked up with Lambchop for the lusher sounds of The Salesman And Bernadette. But the media soon began to move on: their nature is to become increasingly unwilling to continue championing a seemingly lost cause when an artist has been around as long as Chesnutt has without troubling the front racks of HMV. So by the time Chesnutt recorded Ghetto Bells in 2005 with guests including Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks it probably passed you by, and his 2008 collaboration with Elf Power, Dark Developer, was no doubt thought of as what is termed ‘specialist interest’. And though At The Cut is his second album with the likes of Menuck and Picciotto — they were initially gathered together by filmmaker Jem Cohen to create music for his movie Empires Of Tin, and Cohen ended up co-producing the resulting record, 2007’s North Star Deserter — mainstream media outlets have stopped listening.
“It’s my fault,” Chesnutt groans. “If it was just me and an acoustic guitar I’d be playing at the folk festivals and that would be a lot easier for people. It’s my fault for wanting to explore everything. I never knew what I wanted to be. I wanted distortion. I didn’t want distortion. I wanted slick, I wanted rough. I wanted sparse, I wanted dense. It feels natural to me.”
But these things don’t fit with the image of the vulnerable figure in the wheelchair with which we were first familiar, and so other fresher, less confusing faces got the features while Chesnutt continued to battle on, testing himself with each new record. It’s been to the benefit of those still listening, however. At The Cut represents the moment in his career when people should sit up, blink repeatedly, and reassess what they have previously ignored: Vic Chesnutt is a vital, singular force who demands your attention. Hearing this record for the first time it’s no wonder that so many musicians flock to him, but At The Cut is far more than a musician’s record. It’s one of the most honest, literate, shocking, tender and challenging records of the year. Listen to the noble grandeur of ‘Chinaberry Tree’, with its guitar lines tracing fiery circles round Chesnutt’s plangent delivery; the quasi-industrial post-rock of ‘Philip Guston’; the impossibly romantic but ultimately startling ‘Flirted With You All My Life’, which unravels from its premise as a love song into what he calls “a break-up song with death”; the heart of darkness within ‘Chain’ ; the Nina Simone soul of ‘We Hovered With Short Wings’; the closing, poignant ‘Granny’. This is the sound of a masterpiece waiting for recognition.
It’s been made by a man who, throughout an hour-long conversation, veers dramatically between self-loathing and justifiable confidence, despair and wonder. Given his situation that’s perhaps understandable. Crippled by a car accident at the age of 18, he found solace in music before temporarily losing the feeling in his arms and legs. He’s been championed by some of the world’s biggest stars — from the aforementioned Stipe to Dangermouse, who employed him on the ill-fated Dark Night Of The Soul collaboration with Sparklehorse — and yet struggles to make a living. He’s met Johnny Cash and acted with Billy Bob Thornton in the underrated Sling Blade; he’s also been called an idiot by Allen Ginsberg and attempted suicide on more than one occasion. Chesnutt himself offers the best illustration of the contradictions within his life: “Michael Stipe has told others — he never told me this but he’s told everyone else — that he recorded that first album (Little) because he wanted to capture my songs before I died or killed myself.”
So call his life tragic and he’ll agree. “No doubt about it! Take a look at my career: it’s a struggle. It’s not like I’m on top of the charts or anything. I’m also really jaded because I’ve been doing it for twenty years. It’s a grind out there on tour. Worrying about paying the bills; it’s a grind. It corrupts . . . It diminishes the joy that you can get out of music sometimes.” To make matters harder still, these days he handles his own business, although as he puts it, “I mismanage it. I’m one of these unprofessional types. I am the biggest fuck up in the music business. I have done everything to ruin every step along the way. I suck at business!” In fact, in ‘It Is What It Is’ he refers to himself as “like an invisible man directing traffic”. “That’s probably my number one comedic line of all time,” he chuckles.
People’s image of him has no doubt coloured their perception of his music, and while it may have brought some towards him, lured by the backstory, it’s clearly worked against him too, as he himself concedes in no uncertain terms. “Most people – 99% of the population – is going to hear my music and they’re going to know that I’m in a wheelchair, paraplegic, you know, or if they see me singing my songs, it’s too heavy, you know? They can’t deal. They’re like, ‘This is the last shit on earth I wanna listen to. I just can’t stand this. This is bumming me out and this is not what I want’.”
But remind him that he’s living countless people’s fantasies – touring the world, working with battalions of revered musicians – and he’ll interrupt you swiftly and enthusiastically. “It also feels a triumph, you know? It’s a thrill. I am living the indie rock and roll dream, there’s no doubt about it! I love it. It may sound pathetic to some people but there’s nothing to me more thrilling than being on stage with Efrim and Guy and everyone else. And giving Van Dyke Parks a copy of my lyrics to scrutinise before we do a take and have him comment on my lyrics. I mean, to me, that’s thrilling!”
There are a lot of thrills in Chesnutt’s life, it seems, no doubt one of the reasons that people are so willing to work with him. “The Lambchop thing that we did together, that was an incredible experience to record, it was just the best. I’ve never done anything like it. And this new collaboration has been amazingly life-enriching. It kind of brought the colour back to my cheeks. It’s a shot in the arm playing with these guys. It’s what I call a supergroup, there’s no doubt about it. And they give me confidence.”
Such optimism rarely lasts for long, though. Happy enough to declare early during the interview that, “I will do this forever now: anybody that wants to play with me, I’ll be glad to do it,” he reverts to pouring scorn on his work within minutes. “I don’t know what these people see in me. I think I suck. I never thought my songs were appropriate for other people.”
Well, he’s wrong. The proof is perhaps in the fact that At The Cut is one of three albums he’s releasing in the latter half of this year. Also due very soon is an album recorded with Jonathon Richman. “I’ve known Jonathon for almost twenty years,” he explains, “and he’s taken me on tour with him many times, and that has been completely life changing. It’s nice to have Jonathon Richman as a rock and roll mentor! It’s just incredible! He wanted to make a record with me (because) he said ‘your records never really sound like you do live. When you’re live, there’s a lot of space and you fuck up a lot, and I really like that’. And so he wanted to record in a more improvisational way. So we came up there for four days and we recorded with his drummer and Jonathon stood in the room, not playing, sometimes doing tai-chi right in front of me while I’m doing a take, and we recorded a bunch of songs, like thirty songs, in a couple of days, and Jonathon produced it and played guitar and harmonium on it. It’s called Skitter On Take-Off. Like a duck skittering across a pond before it takes flight.”
Chesnutt denies with typical modesty that he is unusually productive. Calculating how many songs he’s written he estimates around a thousand, “But, you know, 800 of them, 900 of them, suck! They were like rehearsals. I write a lot of bad songs that never see the light of day just for the exercise. I’m always thinking about it, though. I’m always mulling it over.”
Skitter Take-Off was recorded almost immediately after At The Cut, confirming this as an undeniably fruitful period of his life. “When I came back from Montreal after recording At The Cut,” he elaborates, “I had a week before I was going to record with Jonathon, and I was so inspired by these guys in Montreal that I wrote 16 songs when I got home. It was so exciting, it was just pouring out of me!”
And so it seems it has been for much of the last few years, as City Slang have also just released his soundtrack to the German film Mitte Ende August (Sometime In August) by the well respected Berlin based director and writer Sebastian Schipper. “When I first got the movie I was in Paris, and I got the DVD and watched it on my computer and I was blown away. I just thought it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. I was completely inspired. It made me want to write.”
But while Chesnutt’s skeletal incidental music suits the gently touching nature of the film, it’s his reinterpretation of a 2001 classic pop hit that is most accessible. “When he told me that a Kylie Minogue song was kinda like the theme I was like ‘Fuck!’” he laughs. “But then when I heard ‘Come Into My World’ for the first time — he sent me an mp3 of it, I’d never really thought of any of her songs before, I’d heard them in the grocery store and shit, you know? — as soon as I heard that song I realised, ‘It’s in E minor! I can do this!’ I was thrilled. It was the kernel of inspiration for the whole movie, almost. And I am so proud of that cover. I was so inspired, it’s so beautiful at the end, I was just so thrilled. And I think it’s a great movie.” (The soundtrack is for sale here and the track is available as a free download here.)
It’s almost certainly that sense of excitement that not only keeps Chesnutt going but ensures his music remains so invigorating that other musicians continue to flock to him. But not everyone has been so impressed. His meeting with Allen Ginsberg in the early 1990s didn’t go quite to plan after they found themselves performing at the same LA club. “He’d read in the LA Times about me,” Chesnutt recalls, “and he knew my story. And he said, ‘You broke your neck in a drunk driving car wreck.’ And I said, ‘Yes’. And he said, ‘And your new album’s called ‘Drunk’ right?’ And I said, ‘Yes’. ‘And you recorded it when you were completely drunk?’ And I said, ‘Yes’. And he said ‘You’re an idiot!’ And I was like ‘Wow, he’s messing on me for being drunk, for breaking my neck’!”
He pauses for a moment, then continues. “And as it turns out, yes: I was an idiot.” It’s excruciating to hear him once again dismiss himself in such a way, but typically Chesnutt spins it round once more. “But I got to meet Allen Ginsberg face to face and have a fifteen minute chat with him! Basically these are medals of honour! I think he’s really amazing. There’s no one better could have called me an idiot.”
As he wraps up the interview Chesnutt again laughs, as he has done with the same regularity that he has paused and sighed throughout the interview. “Wow,” he cackles at the news that the call has lasted over an hour, “I didn’t feel stupid like I usually do.” In fact he hasn’t sounded stupid once. The only people orbiting Chesnutt’s world who can be considered stupid are those who have written him off and who will let At The Cut pass them by. Cowardly though he may claim to be, “the courage of the coward” — as he quotes from Frank Norris’ McTeague in the opening lines of the album — “(is) greater than all others.”