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A Quietus Interview

Thumbprints On The Artwork: Eric Chenaux Interviewed
John Doran , March 22nd, 2018 08:04

Even when Canadian singer songwriter and experimental musician Eric Chenaux is talking about cruising, dropping acid to the butthole surfers or dancing to D'Angelo he's actually talking about his philosophical approach to the inimitable music he makes. Or maybe even his approach to life itself. Words: John Doran. Home page portrait: JB Deucher

Portrait by Esther Campbell

“Mushroom picking is a beautiful way to be in the forest. Your eyes are on the floor, looking for them everywhere. When I get back to Paris after mushroom picking season ends, I’m still looking for them on the sidewalk. They’re not there of course. There is less than 0.001% chance I’m going to find an edible wild mushroom growing on the sidewalk in Paris but it has become a way of seeing for me. Looking for mushrooms changes the way that you see in the same way that listening to music changes the way that you hear. Are they similar in other ways? Mushroom picking is actually more reflective and meditative for me than playing my guitar. You should hear what I’m thinking about when I’m playing on stage - it’s crazy. It’s usually, ‘What am I going to eat after the show?’ Or even more prosaic, ‘My little finger is on the bottom string. Shall I keep it on the bottom string for a bit longer, or shall I move it off the bottom string onto another string?’ Or, ‘Why did I put my amp that far away from my chair? I can’t reach it now.’ I’m not a transcendental person when I’m playing. It’s not a psychedelic experience for me. But when I’m picking mushrooms that’s when I’m more likely to be thinking about music.”

Seven years ago the Canadian singer songwriter and experimental musician Eric Chenaux moved from his home city of Toronto to live with his lover Mariette in the outskirts of Paris. One of the many ways in which this has changed his life - on top of having to learn to read, speak and think fluently in French as a new language and the slow process of becoming part of a totally different musical ecology - is that he is now obsessed with mushroom picking.

He is keen to point out that his enthusiasm for fungus hunting still outstrips his ability: “I didn’t find any last year. I’m still learning the skill from Mariette’s family who come from the South Of France.”

Speaking about the way this hunt engenders obsessiveness in its participants, he says: “Some activities may seem like a hobby or sport but are somehow more than that because they tend to become the centre of people’s lives. Surfing is a really good example. People who get into surfing - that is it. They move to Costa Rica or Australia and they bail on everything else in life. It wasn’t really a milieu I was familiar with but the first time I surfed and got up on the board and felt the gravity of the wave and the pull of the moon I understood it 100%. It’s a drug. It’s not like a drug or a simile for a drug - it is an actual drug. It’s an alteration. I understood completely how someone could quit their job, leave their husband and just go and surf. And mushroom picking is in that realm.”

He is, as you will have guessed by now, not talking about magic mushrooms here, just edible funghi; the kind that can be eaten with a bit of olive oil on toasted bread, in an omelette or tossed into a salad. But as you will also have guessed by now, he is not just talking about mushrooms either.

Eric is an accomplished raconteur, a great talker, he would be ‘good down the pub’ as we say but at the same time, you get the sense that when chatting with him you’re never just shooting the breeze. For him at least, no matter how relaxed he looks, there’s something more constructive going on. Even when he's talking about making mushroom omelette, dropping acid to the Butthole Surfers or naming which Sade tunes are best to dance to, it all seems to be related, on one level or another, to his practice as a musician and perhaps even to how he lives his life.

At the outset of our two hour Skype talk he tells me likes interviews (“Well, when they’re good…”) in the same way he enjoys applying for grants as both processes give him the chance to flesh out thoughts: “It’s a way to get my ideas to leave the loop of my head.”

As he talks he appears to be walking margins between refining viewpoints he has had for a long time, extemporising on theories that are just coalescing and constructing brand new metaphors for artistic practice as we go along. And he’s adept at all three, even if it leads us into some unexpected conversational territory.

Talk of mushroom picking, leads me onto Luke Turner, my colleague at tQ and the semi-autobiographical work, Out Of The Woods, that he is close to completing. London’s immigrant populations, especially those from Eastern European countries, have revitalised the fortunes of English mushroom picking somewhat, which can now be added to the many practical uses people find for Epping Forest, which also includes cruising for illicit sex and the even more illicit burial of dead bodies.

Without missing a beat he says: “You know I think mushroom picking is rather a lot like cruising, which is a gorgeous image for me. You’re taking une balade but you keep on going because you’re wondering who you might meet in the forest. There’s so much reflective time alone. And you pass by somebody but maybe you go on. You keep on going. And the chance that you might meet somebody gives you a reason to carry on, to keep on going forwards in a slow movement. And mushroom picking is like that as well. ‘Oh, what’s over that hill? I wonder what’s over the next brow?’ There is a faint reason to carry on moving but the destination doesn’t really matter. The real beauty of cruising is more than likely the time before the encounter - if the encounter even happens.”

He pauses and his face slowly spreads into a wry grin: “That’s my imagination talking of course. That’s what I imagine would happen if I were to go out cruising...”

Eric’s trip has been an unusually long, calm and steady journey with just a few noticeable staging posts along the route and while he’s still not a household name by any stretch of the imagination he is now producing the best work of his career as a well-turned out and urbane 40-something emigrant living in France. In recent years he has produced two stunningly beautiful and genuinely inimitable solo albums for Canadian independent Constellation, Skullsplitter and Slowly Paradise - whose reputation will only grow with time - plus impressive collaborative LPs with the likes of French chanteuse Eloïse Decazes and Land Of Kush guitarist Radwan Ghazi Moumneh and that's before we get to his live performances, which are always spellbinding affairs. It really feels as if his unhurried approach, in both theory and praxis, has allowed him to create a unique sound that manages somehow to be both accessible and challenging, cerebrally engaging and genuinely moving, psychedelic and prepossessing.

After leaving high school in Toronto in the late 1980s, Chenaux, a fan of Gang Of Four, Cocteau Twins and This Heat, as well as dub reggae and pre-bluegrass folk music, formed a post punk band called Phleg Camp. He talks fondly of a tour supporting NOMEANSNO and The Ex across Canada in 1989: “Every night we’d say, ‘Let’s do a really short set so we can get off stage and watch the other two bands.’ Because they were on fire.” There was some touring in the US as well and he is keen to highlight the diversity of the hardcore scene of the early 90s: “There were some bands that sounded exactly like Black Flag for sure but also there were bands who were essentially bluegrass groups who just wanted to play really fast and there were some bands who wanted to sound exactly like Fleetwood Mac but playing really fast. It felt like you could do whatever you wanted as long as you played really fast.”

They released an album Ya’Red Fair Scratch in 1992 but geographical remoteness tempered the band’s ambitions: “We were a hardcore band in the suburbs of Toronto. We had no peers. There were no fellow travellers.”

So when he encountered serious improvised guitar music for the first time just after the release of Phleg Camp’s one and only album, the idea and impact of improv was leaning heavily on an open door.

For a Damascene conversion, the fateful exposure has hardly imprinted itself on his consciousness though. Speaking about the music he heard that changed his life he says: “It was either Derek Bailey or Eugene Chadbourne. I don’t actually remember hearing it. And I don’t even remember what I heard in this music that fucked me up so much other than it seemed that it was liberated from something in a way that what I was making was not. And because it was on guitar it spoke to me on a practical level I guess.”

He sums up the attitude he had afterwards succinctly: “Oh boy, there’s a whole world out there that I don’t know about and I want to know about it.”

Portrait by JB Deucher

Knowing about a whole new world of music that’s out there and becoming part of it yourself for the first time are two very different things. No matter what you think of improvised music, either in theory or practice, I hold that it’s undeniably an act of bravery for a musician with no prior experience to get up in front of people they don’t know and start exploring in this manner. Even when I’m not a fan of what a relatively fresh-faced improviser is doing, I always recognise that there’s cold nerve on display, especially if it’s being played in the kind of setting where audiences might be more acclimatized to indie rock, EDM or heavy metal, say. It would seem to me that normal fears about being ridiculed, not just by casual observers who may not even fully understand what is happening or simply not have the patience for it but also by those who have plenty of skin in the game, would be heightened to dizzying levels. There’s a level of nakedness with this kind of caper that standard rock shows generally don’t present the musician with. (This isn’t always the case obviously. I watched Terrie Hessels of the Ex try and improvise a duet with a bunch of lit fireworks in a bar in the Netherlands once. The venue quickly filled up with acrid smoke and everyone had to run out into the street but such instances of ‘rock & roll’ showmanship among improvising avant garde musicians feel like the exception rather than the rule.)

Chenaux tells me that there was an established improv scene in Toronto in the mid-90s, it’s just that he didn’t connect with it at that time. He preferred to try out his new role as experimental guitar player in the city’s rock venues where he already knew people because of his time in Phleg Camp. His initial attempts to break out of a more standard way of playing into a more liberated zone didn’t exactly set the world on fire: “My mother was at my first improvised concert. It did not go well. I could romanticise it now as me making furniture music but it was in a club so there was no furniture. There were a lot of people at the venue because the rock band who were the main act had a big following. I played before them but no one looked up or stopped talking. I don’t even know if the sound person put what I was doing through the PA or whether they even knew I had started. So I finished and went to sit with my mum and my aunt and they were like, ‘When are you playing?’ You know, that didn’t feel so great.

“But I don’t get that feeling so much any more. For me it’s much more terrifying to go to a dinner party than it is to go up on stage and faff about. I am much more worried about making a fool of myself round at someone’s house that I don’t know.”

Portrait by Myriam Van Imschoot

The faff he is talking about is the extraordinary guitar improv he performs live. A smeared and continuously shifting sound, that bends constantly away from the notes that your brain is expecting to hear, a diverse range of sounds conjured up from a small but overworked set of pedals (mainly wah wah and distortion by the sound of it); sounds you wouldn’t generally associate with a guitar at all, more often brass and woodwind. A sometimes chaotically unfurling noise that threatens to coalesce into harmonious accord but never quite does. A tapestry woven from mesmeric clusters of vibrant and wonky notes bereft of attack and decay. A guitar sound that while constantly shifting is also constantly locked in a tug of war with his rung crystal voice - which is, despite its extreme purity and clarity, often the anchor which holds everything in place.

In the same way that filling out grant forms and doing interviews help him give voice to his thoughts, it is the live shows that allow him to write music to the textural depth that he desires: “The reason I improvise the way that I do in while I play live is because I cannot write with that kind of detail [otherwise]. I’m not good at writing music. I can get some chords together and melodies come to me somewhat easily, thankfully. But in terms of getting the little details or the arrangement, I can’t do it. Anything from the incredible arrangements on a Dionne Warwick album or the incredible arrangements on a Prince record or the incredible arrangements on a Philly soul record or the incredible arrangements on a Kendrick Lamar record. When I’m writing I can’t answer the question, ‘Oh, what am I going to do there?’ But I can pick up a guitar and fuck around.”

He always appears to be engaged in an ongoing exploratory process in order to wrest ever more odd or unusual sounds from what is a relatively basic set-up of a guitar and a few pedals. When asked if he’s always tinkering he says: “Yes. Obviously I’m no purist.

“There are musics that have informed me about how modulations of sound can be interesting but I was never really a fan of a lot of affected music. I like a lot of acoustic music and still do. I think about Roswell Rudd on trombone and how electronic he sounds, just by the use of mutes. But then there’s Miles Davis’ On The Corner as well. Probably the biggest one is Jon Hassell’s Vernal Equinox which is deep in the bone for me. That is a masterpiece of sound.

“The amazing thing about a guitar as opposed to a piano is that the strings can really bend. On [Slowly Paradise track] ‘Bird & Moon’ about 70% of what you’re hearing (apart from the beat) is actually unamplified electric guitar which is basically my favourite sound. Even when I’m playing live I have a mic on the guitar so unamplified electric guitar makes up about 60% of the overall guitar sound. But I’m bending everything all the time. It gets so out of tune. So everything is always on its way somewhere else. I have my guitar tuned really low so I can really bend my low string almost all the way down to the other side of the guitar. I love that smeary smudgy sound.

“I have a tremolo arm and I lean on it. Basically I want it like a whammy pedal. I want deep pitch problems. I don’t even plug in until I’m on stage. The real playing before that point happens for me acoustically. I love the sound of my semi-acoustic not plugged in. That’s my main problem playing live: I can’t get that exact sound. But I don’t use any preparation. I’m just bending everything. And that comes from listening to music that’s pretty bent [laughs]."

Chenaux’s secret weapon on this, and several other of his albums, is the Canadian musician Ryan Driver. Not only has the multi-instrumentalist added a stunning array of music and effects (nearly all generated on a Wurlitzer 200a) to the LP but he co-wrote the lyrics. And even in this act of collaboration, one can sense Chenaux’s smudging fingers close by. He says: “I had lyrics for most of the songs but they were stuck in a way. They were too clear as to what they meant so there was no wonder to me in them.

“So I sang them for Ryan - who is my favourite lyricist working today - and I would make some of them clear and some of them not. I mumbled the bits I knew I didn’t want on the album. Some bits I translated into French. Ryan speaks French but not fluently. And so I was kind of directing him a little bit. He came back with these incredible lyrics that were beautiful, hilarious, playful and sweet. But I had to have the last word [laughs], so I modulated them myself further...

“Ryan provides this lyric writing service for other people. He translates bossa nova and tropicalia records into English even though he doesn’t speak a word of Brazilian - he just goes on the sounds of the words. And what he comes up with is incredible.”

Despite how weird Eric's music can sound on first contact, as he points out, albeit in a self-effacing manner, he does have a true talent for writing melodically. The tracks ‘An Abandoned Rose’ and ‘Wild Moon’, two of several shining highlights on Slowly Paradise, demonstrate this luxuriously. While it would be weird and childish to accuse any improviser of seeking refuge in free-ranging abstract exploration because of an inability to hack it as a ‘normal’ musician, it would simply be impossible level this at Eric Chenaux to start with. It is safe to say that there are some songwriters out there who would give their left arm to be able to write songs like these. It just needs to be said that how he presents these songs is not how these other notional songwriters would present them.

When asked if there was an element to which he was like a visual artist smudging dirty fingerprints onto his own painting, he nods at the image: “Yes. I would wholeheartedly agree with that. What I do is not ironic. I’m not trying to ruin anything I do but the details are the smudge marks. I want to hear a lot of detail. Basically one day - and by that time I think the grey you see in my beard here will have colonised my entire face - I would like to make a record of love songs you can listen to on LSD. Imagine trying to listen to Leonard Cohen on LSD - imagine how claustrophobic that would be, compared to listening to the Butthole Surfers. When you’re on acid you’re not going to go to Joni Mitchell. Or Leonard Cohen. Or Neil Young. You need the Butthole Surfers. Or Prince Far-I. Or an On-U Sound compilation.

“Yeah, but I’m an improviser and I’m a singer songwriter [laughs]. It’s amazing what images that term conjures up for a lot of people, perhaps with good reason, but James Brown was a singer songwriter. Mark E Smith was a fantastic singer songwriter as well.”

Slowly Paradise is the fifth album he has released on Canadian indie Constellation in the last 12 years (six if you include Warm Weather the excellent LP he put out with regular collaborator Ryan Driver in 2010). The fit is a good one - especially since it was the label who first persuaded him to sing on record - and gives him some much deserved international exposure and leaves him free to explore other projects on smaller labels (such as last year’s haunting chanson collection Bride with Eloïse Decazes on vocals).

Slowly Paradise is a collection of love songs, which feels more positive than 2015’s Skullsplitter, if still acutely aware of the turn of the seasons: “It is more upbeat, yes. I always know where I’m going but I’m not in a rush to get there. I know there are certain steps in this journey that I have to reflect in. Most of the music that I like to listen to moves. And my main critique of the music that I’ve made over the last ten years is that it doesn’t move like I want it to. It doesn’t swing. And I don’t mean that in a jazz sense. I want to move more! I want music that… shakes the ass!”

Slowly but surely Eric is travelling in a direction he wants to move in, even if he’s not sure who or what is just over the next hill or brow. The folk influence of earlier Constellation albums such as Sloppy Ground from 2008 has given way to the unmistakable swing of R&B just as his voice has gotten stronger with each successive release. The video to ‘Wild Moon’ which features Eric dancing in a cinema was apparently a natural step for him to take: “‘Wild Moon’ is a very open song. It only has one note, it’s not even a chord. When we were on tour in Japan we would play this song for a very long time (the album version is insanely truncated). And during this song I would just get up and start dancing simply because I could, because I wasn’t playing along. I dance a lot at home and I used to go out dancing a lot in Toronto.

“I like to dance to hip hop, dancehall reggae. I like the slow BPMs. A lot of smooth soul, Sade… anything that goes, ‘tck.clk.t-tck-tck-clk.’ Jesus. That stuff just kills me. You know, slow jams… and EPMD, Gang Starr, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, D’Angelo and Prince.”

Now the idea that he wants to shake it more while keeping some of the elements that he loves about reflective music may sound a bit like him wanting to have his gateaux and eat it. The same could be said for his now 12 year old experiment in combining what is ostensibly folk music, avant garde improv and soulful pop. After all, on paper, it does sound like the recipe for a madman’s breakfast.

Speaking in very general terms, if you look at the perceived fundamentals of folk, pop (including R&B, soul and pre rock & roll balladry) and improv music - you quickly bang up against the idea that they are all resistant to one another and perhaps shouldn’t be combined. Received wisdom says folk tradition holds the song to be of prime importance and not the delivery or the specific interpretation. This pretty much stands diametrically opposed to the idea of a jazz improvisation of a standard and the harmonic complexity this can generate. And then in turn pop music often trades on completely different factors such as grain of voice, the personality of the singer and melodic simplicity and immediacy (the hyper-melismatic delivery of some R&B singers not withstanding).

Chenaux sidesteps some of these issues by having his voice do one thing while the guitar does another but finding this balance was clearly hard won and as the listener you still have to recognise that the potential for him to do something utterly barbaric has been near and present at every step of the way. When listening to all of his albums in order, you get the sense that you have a ringside seat for some kind of tripartite zero sum musical game unfolding before you in slow motion. It seems clear that he has become more and more aware to what extent these influences can and can’t be combined. For example, it’s not hard to track how the folk element of his sound has receded as the ‘pop’ element has come to prominence.

He says: “For me it was necessary for the folk element to recede in order for the pop element to come more to the fore. Definitely. When I look back at my first few solo records I see exactly the same thing. I find it very hard to improvise modally, even though I do.

“At its basis, I feel like a lot of the language used around improvisation is focussed around activity on what an improviser does in their practice. But for me, the basis of improvisation is about listening. It’s not really about what you do, it’s about how you listen. All listening is improvisatory by nature. All listeners are improvisers. So I’m not interested in whether music is improvised or not, I’m interested in whether we can improvise along with it.”

He concludes: “The other reason that things became more harmonically complicated is because I started working on it [laughs]. When I first started making records I didn’t know that much about jazz harmony which I consider to be very much like good old classic pop harmony - they’re very linked. So I started trying and slowly it became closer to what I enjoy but I’m still far away from where I want to be. I still hear too much gravity in the music. But that takes time. I think I have to understand the gravity itself before I can alleviate it.”

Slowly Paradise is out now on Constellation. Eric Chenaux is supporting Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu) at The Lexington, London, on April 9 and is playing live in various European cities this Spring