But as he himself will admit, he needs villains and enemies in order to survive. He needs to subvert audience expectations at every turn: whether it’s the “potty-mouthed pranksta rapper” who turns into a serious composer of solo piano instrumentals in the middle of a set, or the producer who works with French music icons of decidedly different eras, from the classy Jane Birkin (Gainsbourg’s muse) to the cartoonish Teki Latex (of franco-hip-hop group TTC).
The first time I heard Gonzales was when a friend of a friend slipped me a cassette sometime in the early 90s, made by some guy he knew at McGill named Jason Beck. Beck went on to make a one-man demo album called Thriller, credited to Son, which was picked up by Warner Canada and landed a radio hit. The follow-up Son album, Wolfstein, died a stillbirth (for reasons explained in this interview), which caused Beck to flee the country for Berlin and reinvent himself as Gonzales, just as his friend Peaches was taking off with her equally reductionist and raunchy electro pop.
His first album as Gonzales, 2000's Uber Alles, was an uncharacteristically low-key, often pretty album featuring torch songs, traces of trip-hop and pieces for solo Rhodes piano, with a few subtle nods to the hip-hop direction he would soon embark on. The next few albums took his new “supervillain” character over the top, yielding a small handful of memorable but frivolous songs (“Take Me to Broadway”) that are really only worth revisiting to view the character arc of his career.
During the first part of this decade, he returned to Canada only for the holidays. Canada had already had its chance to love him; spurned, he had decided that Europe was it. “I don’t want to be a slave to the power of unrequited love,” he sings on his new album, Soft Power, a line that could well be about his conflicted feelings about his native country.
I ended up having dinner with him and some mutual friends one Toronto evening in December, 2004; he had just released the Solo Piano album in France, which would soon go on to be a smash success there—a record of silent film soundtracks and Satie-rical interludes that was considered so Parisian that a track from it opens the film Je T’Aime Paris. He came to Pop Montreal in October 2005 at the invitation of SoCalled, to share a bill with octogenarian “bongos and bagels” pianist Irving Fields. As a homecoming performance, it was stunning. Here’s my capsule review that ran in Exclaim:
Okay, really, tell us again why Gonzales wasted his time with that
cock-and-pussy show in Berlin for the last five years? Oh yeah, it got him famous. Because otherwise, a bunch of hipsters wouldn't be in a beautiful old theatre in his hometown of Montreal listening to him play solo piano for an hour. Few knew exactly what to expect, but Gonzales proved to be nothing short of an astounding pianist in every sense: composition, dynamics and dexterity. Playing off audience accompaniment, conversing easily in French and English, and encoring with a medley of the entire set amounted to a consummate performance. The Entertainist, indeed.
I ended up seeing the Solo Piano tour the next three times it came to Toronto or Montreal, including an ill-fated attempt to adapt the performance to pipe organ for Pop Montreal performance. But each of the other two occasions found him wowing audiences who really had no idea what to expect; if they didn’t know him personally, most people were there either because it was free (the Harbourfront show) or because he was opening for Feist (Massey Hall, where he got a standing ovation).
For this new album, Gonzales has assembled a band for the first time, and the set encompasses every stage of his career (excepting the Son years). He’s a complete and utter ham on stage, whether he’s attacking a Casio keyboard with a microphone for a percussive solo, crawling over the heads of audience members and haranguing them for not knowing his “hit” songs, or belting out a spot-on cover of the Phil Collins/Phillip Bailey 80s chestnut “Easy Lover” with his backing vocalist, Matthew Flowers. Gonzales doesn’t just play a set of songs and call it a concert; this is a Show, this is Entertainment, this is using artifice to simultaneously send-up and celebrate each of his musical strengths and personal weaknesses.
It gave us lots to talk about a couple of days later, for this article in the new issue of Exclaim.
May 12, 2008
Locale: Arts and Crafts corporate headquarters, Toronto
Soft Power: could you possibly pick a more Canadian title? Who are you, Lloyd Axworthy?
(laughs) I never thought of that. How is it Canadian? Other than that’s how Canadia sees itself?
Canadia??!! Wow, been a while, has it?
(laughs) That’s what Germans say. ‘You going to Canadia now?’
Lloyd Axworthy was Foreign Affairs Minister under Chretien, and his whole modus operandi was for Canada to be a soft power in the world. We don’t have the big guns to throw our weight around, so we have to be a soft power and use diplomacy to exert our influence.
You know who gets credited with the phrase ‘soft power,’ is Joseph Nye, who is a Harvard political science professor who wrote a book.
Yes, but most Canadians—if they know it at all—probably associate it with Axworthy.
The political angle of soft power, in a way, mirrors what I’ve gone through, which is being in a purely oppositional mode when I started, very much the ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mentality that George Bush espoused in 2000—the year of the first Gonzales album [Uber Alles]. Then I gradually realized that it might be better to co-opt people that you perceive as enemies, be more inclusive so that you can have more lasting influences. This I learned from being forced to work in a team on various projects, and see that the reward over the long-term outweighs the pain of suppressing your ego in the short term.
All joking aside, it’s something I didn’t learn profoundly until I was in the studio working with someone like Jane Birkin, who has a big entourage, and how they split up the work. This [album] was the first time I let someone into the process. I let Renaud Letang, who is my producer and partner, become the whole production team and I just became the artist. Normally we’re together on the other side of the window from the artist. That was already a big step for me, letting someone else in on the process. To a lesser extent, it was about putting together a group of other solo artists and literally dramatizing what’s in the lyrics, about the difficulty of having equality in those situations.
Early Gonzales is very much about the id, the ego, and release. It’s about casting off shame of different levels. I didn’t understand that completely at the time; I really enjoyed Uber Alles, but couldn’t get into the subsequent albums. Now they seem like part of an obvious arc, and they also make a lot of sense coming out the context of a very earnest and conservative Canadian musical scene of the mid-90s. Gonzales makes so much more sense as a reactionary in that context.
I think that’s the case. My experiences in Canada, my feelings of rejection, my wanting to prove something and deciding that what I thought held me back here would propel me forward over there. I felt I didn’t fit in back then. Indie rock rejected the idea of being masterful at music, first of all, and my ideas about entertainment and spectacle that were forming seemed to be taboo in that indie rock world.
And it was that [indie rock] world that dictated the predominant cultural conversation at the time.
Exactly. When I went over to Europe, it was with a sense of vengeance. That’s why I started to openly declare my musical genius. In some ways, it was done to shock, because it’s rare for someone to come out and say that. So part of it was shock value, but it was coming from a very sincere place. I do view music as something to be mastered, as something that has science and mathematical secrets to be learned that create emotions. The world I came from did not appreciate those. Luckily, the world I went to did.
And yet the first incarnation of Gonzales was very reductionist. It was very much about breaking things down to basic elements of groove and I don’t hear virtuosity in those early records, whereas I do in Solo Piano.
Yeah, but the melodies of Solo Piano are not that far off from the melodies on Uber Alles. First of all, there are three songs on Rhodes piano on Uber Alles; there are two songs sung by Sticky that are proper old-school torch songs. There’s really only two or three songs that have beats, but they seem to overshadow the rest.
Sure, but the next several albums are certainly reductionist.
Okay, so then in The Entertainist the virtuosity is in the rhymes, in the wordplay. They’re more like patter songs from The Music Man than they are a real rap song.
Feist once told me about the electro/hip-hop tour you did with her, where there would be a grand piano on stage covered with a sheet and various props, and that at one point in the show you would clear everything off it and sit down and play Solo Piano. Why did you want to flex that virtuosity again? What was the reaction?
It’s a question of surprise, definitely. It’s the same reason that, during a Solo Piano show, I break it down and read these fake reviews that touch on all kind of taboos like anti-Semitism, sexism and Canadian self-defeatism, coming from a supposedly good student of music with ‘good taste.’ That comes as a shock to some people, as does being a potty-mouth prankster rapper who demonstrates old-fashioned piano virtuosity.
It helps to entertain people. Surprise is a big element. You have to keep people in a sense of being shocked once in a while; it’s one of the many tricks of being an entertainer. As much as you have to please people, you also have to shock them and once in a while make them hate you and then earn back their respect. It’s something politicians do all the time. They calibrate according to the over-stepping and then ask for forgiveness, and it works to their advantage.
They become a hero for creating a compromise.
Exactly. That’s an old trick for any kind of mass communication. That’s just there to have those layers and be able to transgress and be redeemed.
I saw the Solo Piano show in three different incarnations on four different occasions. I saw the first Pop Montreal show, which was a revelation because I had no idea what you were going to do…
Right, where I lied and said I asked that they bring in the piano from my childhood home.
Right, and you told the same story at Massey Hall, if I recall. Then I saw the pipe organ show at Pop Montreal…
The unanimous failure, yes.
…the Harbourfront show, and then Massey Hall. And each time, most of the people there had no idea what to expect. Which was fascinating to me, after having seen it once and having some idea what was coming, to observe what people respond to the most and when they laugh—especially when they laugh at things that aren’t even jokes. What struck me was that I could probably count on one hand the number of people in those audiences who had ever been to a solo piano performance of any kind. Obviously there are hammy jokes and clear jokes, but there was also that weird thing when people laugh because they’re uncomfortable with beauty and the virtuosity when you’re playing it straight. Why is that funny? Can you sense that when you’re on stage?
Sure, I’m used to it. And it happens in a broader sense in between albums. The interesting reaction between Solo Piano and Soft Power is that so many people who felt that they could finally permit themselves to finally musically respect me are now completely threatened by the idea that I’ve gone back to some kind of bad taste or kitsch. It’s intentional: for me, Erik Satie is the same as Billy Joel. I have sincere musical respect for both. Just like when I would play “Maniac” in my Solo Piano show, for the first minute people wouldn’t know what song it was. They knew that they knew it and that it was a beautiful song, but all of the sudden they realized it was “Maniac” and they start to laugh.“Oh, now I understand—this is a joke!” But for that minute, they didn’t know it was a joke because they were just hearing what a great song it was. At that moment, I manage to equate Maurice Ravel and Michael Sembello.
But flipping the script, do they not then also laugh at some of the more straight material from Solo Piano?
See, that’s what saddens me. Is that they can’t wrap their head around two levels; not everything is a joke, not everything has to be serious; the two can co-exist, and one often draws you in closer so you can appreciate the other. But what if this guy is just a joke and that’s all there is to it?
That’s the challenge. Humour, to me, in the Jewish sense—as opposed to parody, which is just ha-ha, look at that idiot—Jewish humour is about look at THIS idiot [points to himself]. I’m the idiot. I’m the one who needs to protect myself also from being considered just a straight-ahead musician. Maybe that’s my flaw, that I need to create this distance by putting in a joke where it doesn’t need to be. And maybe people are laughing at my flaws. When I go out into the audience and tell someone, ‘Fuck you, you don’t know my hit song,’ that’s not just a joke—that’s a part of me and my frustration, that I’m not as well known as I think I should be. That’s why they’re laughing—because it’s true. (laughs)
You have a habit of reading fabricated nasty reviews on stage.
Yes, which you revealed in your review of the Massey Hall show! [for Eye Weekly, when he opened for Feist in the spring of 07; the review is now lost on the website’s redesign] I was very upset!
Granted. But I want to read you a real one, which was written about one of the greatest performers of the 20th century. It’s from the New York Times.
His music “must be served with all the available tricks, as loud as possible, as soft as possible, and as sentimental as possible. It’s almost all showmanship topped by whipped cream and cherries. When it is too difficult, he simplifies it. When it is too simple, he complicates it.” His sloppy technique included “slackness of rhythms, wrong tempos, distorted phrasing, an excess of prettification and sentimentality, a failure to stick to what the composer has written”.
That was written about Liberace at Carnegie Hall in 1957.
Oh, I would just be so flattered if they wrote that about me. Really, that’s a wonderful compliment.
I was thinking today about other showmen who had little respect, who were mocked to a ridiculous degree, and tried to marry respectable music with showbiz. Do you think people would be attracted to something like Solo Piano if it wasn’t delivered with a wink and a nod?
I really doubt it.
Because there isn’t that side of it to the record itself—that’s very straight-up.
Maybe I’m underestimating what an audience can handle or not. It’s a good question. What if I started with a solo piano album after moving to Europe? I met a lot of classical musicians and jazz musicians who are really struggling. But when I hear their music, it isn’t very accessible. It goes hand in hand. The wink and the nod also enables me to write piano songs that are constructed like simple pop songs: they’re two minutes long with clear verses and choruses. Because my ego is so linked with what the public thinks of me, I cut out the part that only pleases myself. Other jazz and classical musicians rarely do that; they’re so concerned with proving their musicianship to themselves; they take long solos or develop a melody over a 10-minute improvisation piece, and it’s too challenging. Most people can’t witness that kind of masturbation and enjoy it. The idea that I just want to please the audience means that I write these simple songs, but it also means that I have to serve it with a side dish of entertainment.
The way you defined part of that entertainment before is that the joke is on you, but it is being about an expression of your frustrations: ‘Why doesn’t everyone know my hit song?’ If anyone did that on stage and played it straight, people would be totally turned off. The character you have on stage, everyone understands what’s happening.
I would rather put those flaws on display in the service of entertainment, put them out there first before someone can sense it. I find it awful when I’m watching a performance and someone is pretending to be such a humble guy, when you can tell that this guy is a shark. I’d rather say that first: I’m full of myself; I’m frustrated; I’m incapable of just living in a world where the music should do all the work for me. That way, no can say that about me first. It’s pre-emptive.
It’s the insincerity of sincerity.
Sure. In that superficial forum, you reveal so much more about yourself than when you’re supposedly being authentic.
Something struck me the other night about you singing a song with the chorus “you snooze you lose” at your first proper pop concert in Toronto in over ten years.
I wrote that song for Mocky at a time when he was wallowing in self-pity. He was very frustrated and blaming being misunderstood for his frustration with his success. I wrote that chorus: “do what you can to fight the blues” in a whatever-gets-you-through-the-night style. But in the end, as time passes, it’s about stepping up; it’s very parental advice, really. So you thought the song could be about, ‘Canada, you slept on me?’
The whole night I was wondering what that show must have been like…
Well, also think about what it was like after a show in Montreal, where there was a massive crowd of 800 people and an incredible media reaction, and then come to Toronto and have a half-filled Jane Mallett Theatre. I thought it would have been too much of a triumph. When I say that I court failure and learn from when it doesn’t work, that’s how it’s always been for me. It wouldn’t have been right to finish off the tour on such a high note in Montreal. I think I needed to be brought back down. I really appreciated that. It was painful, at that moment when I walked out in the audience and hung out in the 50 empty seats. I thought, this is what being Gonzales is all about. Feist, god bless her, has been such a unanimous slow burn to huge mainstream success, that I don’t learn much from watching it. There is no failure involved in that story…
No failure… yet!
(laughs) But in a way, it’s less interesting in the sense of how I approach my own career. For her, it’s very linear and it’s been remarkably slow so she can adjust to each step. For where she comes from, that’s the perfect trajectory for her. But for me, I think I would just find ways to twist that around and I would inherently build in bumps on the road.
You would sabotage it?
I wouldn’t say that. It’s more about learning, a long-term investment in being able to feel like what I’ve put out there is really my personality. For a lot of people, that’s a contradiction because they think Gonzales is just a character. But actually, I’m trying to steer it toward the truest expression of my contradictory, flawed personality. That’s why I would have trouble accepting accolades all the time. These transgressions, these redemptions are built into the story. Like the [pipe] organ show [in Montreal] or these other he-can’t-do-that moments. I need that. I need to feel like a tiger in a paper bag.
That’s why I didn’t make a second Solo Piano record, which could have been so seductive. Touring that project is such a joy. To come from a position of musical respect, in a way it would make my whole project more successful and solve so many problems for me. But the lesson of Solo Piano isn’t that I’ve found my formula; the lesson is that I should keep taking risks. So here I go into uncharted territory, the riskiest thing I can think of, which is singing—after working with Jamie Lidell and Feist and Jane Birkin. Now I’m going to get behind the mic? Well, yeah. I wrote a bunch of songs, but picked six that you can’t imagine anyone else singing.
Was a standing ovation at Massey Hall any kind of vindication for you?
I’ve only ever had one true, real standing ovation in my life. It was in Paris. Massey Hall was not a true standing ovation.
Why not? People didn’t know who you were. They weren’t expecting anything. They had no obligation to give you one.
A true standing ovation is when 100 per cent of the audience involuntarily has to jump to their feet. Not when two thirds do that.
So that just didn’t cut the mustard for you.
Those shows were incredibly vindicating for me, yes, in one way. But to be honest with you, I was opening for Feist.
And being introduced by Feist.
Sure. There’s a lot going on there that precludes it from being a true standing ovation. But of course those were really amazing shows, and I was genuinely moved to be coming home to the scene of the crime that spat me out. In a way, the origin of the supervillain Gonzales takes place in Toronto, where lightning hits the laboratory.
[I pull out of copy of Son’s Wolfstein album]. Is this the reason you left Canada?
(laughs) Yes, I was just too embarrassed by that terrible photo of me as a wolf.
What do you think of this record now? When was the last time you listened to it?
I played it for some people a few months ago. [opens it up, examines artwork] I, uh, I like it! It’s not quite Gonzales yet. But it was…
Part of the journey.
Yes, and it was a choice to make to handle the disappointment of being on this major label and the way I dealt with it was to court a certain kind of failure. Realizing that it made me stronger in the long run was one of the reasons that, when I got to Europe, I felt confident making ballsy moves once in a while. I had this great example of doing that and it being painful in the short term but positive in the long term. I had the label tell me they didn’t want to release the album. I insisted that they do, because the letter of the contract said they had to. They were like, ‘Why would you do that? You’re knowingly forcing us to do something we don’t want to do.’ ‘Well, this is what I need to do.’ The other choice would have been to make a different record, to be their bitch.
Is it true that you played Purple Rain in its entirety for the CD release for Thriller at the Rivoli?
Yeah! With different guest singers for each song. I was thinking about doing a recording project like that the other day—but whatever, that was before my morning coffee.
Is this really your first tour with a full band? [featuring SoCalled, Katie Moore, Matthew Flowers and Mocky]
I was on tour with various sources of playback, or I had a foil for part of the show—most notably Feist, for two years. Then I was doing the piano show. Once for our DVD we had a little pick-up band with Feist, Jamie [Lidell] and Mocky, but no real drummer. This is the first time, and I love it. Now I’m like, why didn’t I do this sooner?
I love how the stage show is tailored to the songs, that there’s a dramatic arc to the set. Songs like “Apology” and “Working Together” seem to be written for the show. Now I hear about a French TV show for Canal Plus. What’s going on?
I’m trying to diversify. The idea of doing something in the TV world is a way to get back to the idea of not knowing the rules of the game I’m playing.
Because you’ve obviously mastered this music shit.
I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it, but it’s not like it was in the beginning when I didn’t know how the business worked. I’m inherently a truly conservative person in the sense that, when I know the rules of something, I will follow them. I’m not a rebellious personality. But in the absence of knowing the rules, I will try and do things my own way and find some cool shortcuts that work out for me. That’s what happened in music.
I started my whole music career with this short, sudden burst of major label experience with Son, and very quickly went over to Europe and tried to treat that like it was a bad dream I could wake up from. In the process, I ended up creating the rules to my own game. Now, six albums later and with all the production work, I don’t think there’s anything lost—I’ve gained so much. But also in a way, if something has been lost, it’s the sense of being in a fog of not knowing where things are. Doing the TV show brings me back to that.
Is it a talk show? A Muppet show?
No, it’s a fictional show that I’m writing and acting in with Teki Latex, who is the other main star, and Phillipe Katerine, another French guy.
Are you all in character as Gonzales, etc.?
No, we’re all fictional characters. It’s a real TV show. In July I’m shooting 12 eight-minute episodes for the Canal Plus website, and we’ll get on the air—or not—depending on the reaction to that.