Interview with Vic Chesnutt - Southampton - 5 May 2005

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Vic Chesnutt in Concert Vic arrived into the venue in his wheelchair, full of energy and roaring to get down to sound check. His crew totalled four people: his wife Tina, his niece Liz Durrett (also guest musician on Vic’s last album and supporting act on stage) and their Tour Manager. Such an economy of scale eventually would help Vic turn his best songs into a bare, brave and beautiful live material feast: Tina on drums, Liz on bass and Vic playing guitar and singing. But it is before the gig that I was invited to join Vic and his female companions whilst they were eating their Chinese take-away. Vic had very little on his plate, at least on his diner plate. I felt guilty distracting him from his meal, but he insisted he was happy nibbling away whilst talking into my microphone. So we all listened, charmed by his humour, sincerity, sharpness and attitude.

You’ve just started your European tour. How is it going so far?

Vic Chesnutt: Been great so far. Two shows that went really great in France and Belgium. Gone really good.

How are the French warming to the music of Vic Chesnutt?

Vic Chesnutt: I haven’t played much in France in the past few years. I used to play there quite a bit. Paris has been great for me in the past couple of years. Great audiences, very nice, very receptive, very generous with their applause. I love Paris.

I think that your music has several layers. Your lyrics reach our cognitive brain with image associations but your music reaches our heart and soul directly. Are lyrics and music treated separately in the creative process?

Vic Chesnutt: When I was younger the melodies were more important to me. Melodies are really natural to me, easy for me to come up with. The lyrics, I deliberate over a lot more. I think about them a lot. I edit the lyrics a lot more than I edit the melodies. The lyrics are more important for me to work on, where I have something to offer people, even though the melodies are important in my music, very important to the evocation of the feeling that I try to get. Sometimes with a sad melody you can say a lot that you could never do with just words.

And sometimes the words could counteract the melody. You could have an upbeat melody and tame it with melancholic lyrics…

Vic Chesnutt: Very much so. It’s the contradiction sometimes of the complicated lyrics and the simple melody that to me is a cool experiment. Also, maybe I try to produce a sad melody with some kind of funny lyrics, which is good to try and do sometimes. This motional torque in my music is very important. The juxtaposition of sad and funny and funny and sad is important.

‘West of Rome’: Something urged you to write the song after reading the John Fante novella? What effect did the novella have on you?

Vic Chesnutt: Well, it’s a beautiful book. I really like Fante a lot. And often this happens when I read books, I find them so inspiring. I just felt compelled to write. It’s a story about a family. This screen writer, has a kid and a dog, and what I was inspired to write about was the family thing, about grown-up kids who have no respect for their fathers. They’re ungrateful kids. What I was inspired by is this kind of dysfunctional family of grown-up kids and their rich father.

In ‘Is the Actor Happy?’ I think that there is bit of REM’s soul in this album; or is it that there is a bit of Vic Chesnutt’s soul in some of REM’s material? … and by the way, that’s a compliment for both bands.

Vic Chesnutt: Thank you. I don’t know. REM was a big inspiration to me and Michael had a big personal influence on me. Being my pal and helping me along doing stuff. I was in my late teens and twenties when they started. The thing that REM might have influenced on “Is the Actor Happy?” is maybe this kind of live band thing, and a combination of the very southern and cosmopolitan music.

It’s also a richer album. It’s got more texture to it than your previous material. If we jumped straight from ‘West of Rome’ to ‘Is the Actor Happy?’ there’s definitely a difference, it’s more open sound wise.

Vic Chesnutt: I know what you mean. All that came from playing live, by touring a lot. That record is a complete product of touring a lot. None of the other records have ever been like that even till now. We played those songs over and over with that band, and I wrote those songs with that band in mind.

I must admit this is my favourite record of yours… and also West of Rome. Just depends on my mood. That’s the great thing with the music that you produce.

Vic Chesnutt: Great. That’s good. I’m glad to know that, because sometimes people say “you don’t do songs like that anymore!”, and I feel bad sometimes, or I lose fans when I make a record like ‘Silver’ and they go “I don’t like it at all, because it doesn’t sound like ‘West of Rome’ or ‘Little’..” and I’m like…, well…, fuck you! (laughs)

Well, exactly! … do you want me to edit this part?

Vic Chesnutt: No, it’s fine. It’s fine I don’t care at all.

Ok. That’s rock and roll and proper punk attitude! Anyway… ‘Sweet Relief II’: Nearly 9 years on, and you’ve never looked so good or even happy and fulfilled? Has it helped you along the way, in your career and perhaps to realise that the music industry was doing something worthwhile for once?

Vic Chesnutt: Right. It was a really exciting time. All these rock stars were singing my songs and it was fun. And it always makes you feel good to think that your songs can help other people, because basically when I write my music it’s a very selfish act. It’s really important because in America we have no health insurance. It’s hard for musicians to get health insurance. There’s a great need for that. So for me to help other people, you know I never thought I’d be able to help somebody else with my music. I know people who benefited from Sweet Relief who were gravely ill, and it helped them keeping alive. That’s something that my music couldn’t do otherwise. I mean, I can enrich people spiritually or whatever, or tickle them, make them think they’re not so alone in the world, but to actually buy them medicine is pretty great.

On the sweet relief website: it is written “not for profit corporation”. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron?

Vic Chesnutt: I don’t understand how that (the sweet relief charity corporation) stuff works.

Have you seen the movie ‘The Corporation’?

Vic Chesnutt: No, but I’m dying to see it. I’ve read all about it, although it would be preaching to the converted.

Kurt Warner from Lambchop plays on ‘The Salesman and Bernadette’ and you’ve done some artwork for their album ‘What another man spills’. How did this collaboration start with Kurt?

Vic Chesnutt: I met Kurt when my first record came out. I went to play in Nashville, where he’s from, and there were like three people there. There were two cops and him. I met him then and kept in touch ever since. We’ve been good buddies ever since. I was impressed with his painting before I knew he was a singer. Then he started sending me tapes and I loved the songs. And so I knew I wanted to work with him. I’m sure we’ll do it again some time.

In the inlay for ‘Drunk’, Ian McKaye wrote that the brilliance and intensity of your music and lyrics become clearer the simpler the presentation. Each of your album since has been reaching towards a fuller production, which has matured with ‘Ghetto Bells’. Did this richer production affect the writing of your music?

Vic Chesnutt: I don’t think so. There have been a couple of changes to my musical writing over the years since my first record came out. None of it has to do with production really. The first thing was travelling and seeing the world. That affected my song writing a lot. And also the way my hand was fucked up really. It changed over the years. It changed the way I could physically play with the guitar since my first record came out. If I could play guitar the same way I could during ‘Little’ I would probably make more solo records, more simple records. But since I can’t play guitar like that anymore, I usually play with a band. It’s just a simple physical fact. That’s what exploded the production on my records. It’s trying to make up for things I can’t do solo anymore. Also the fact that on ‘Getto Bells’ if Van Dyke Parks and Bill Frisell want to play on my record, I am like ‘Hell Yeah, Great! This is a dream come true. Fantastic!’ Same thing with Lambchop, that’s twenty of us playing! Great!

The re-release of your back catalogue material by New West was firmly awaited by fans. But this wasn’t possible any earlier due to contractual and legal issues. Many artists get stung by this problem, is there any organisation you are aware of that could guide or help out debuting bands with this ever lasting problem?

Vic Chesnutt: I don’t know. I’ve been on major labels and I’ve been on little tiny independent labels and you can get screwed either way. There are pitfalls you fall into either way. Now with the internet, that’s one way to avoid this kind of stuff. You don’t even have to make a CD anymore, you can get directly to the listeners ears. No pitfalls. But you may not make any money. And perhaps nobody would be listening either. I’ve had this fight with Ian McKaye before about music being a commodity. I told him that the music business started out with somebody who wanted to make money way back in the twenties. Some guy with some money thought “If I go round and record some hillbillies I can sell these records and people will buy them and I’m going to get rich”. It wasn’t like, “Yeah I can make this hillbilly rich”. If you want to be popular, you’ve got to go to the record company. They are the ones that are going to make you a rock star by spinning lots of money on you. Madonna wouldn’t have been a rock star without…

… her breasts?

Vic Chesnutt: Well… That’s true but it’s also that somebody had to film her breasts being bounced around on MTV. There are a lot of breasts out there. Tons of breasts a lot better than hers, with more sex appeal than hers. Just had to be what she was willing to do to sell them and how much money was behind her. It’s a double edged sword. If you want to play in your garage for the rest of your life you don’t have to deal with the corporations ever. It’s easy. But if you want to make it, then you’ve got to deal with the devil. Or you do like Ian does. Ian, like other bands, started playing and building up their own audience. But somebody like me I couldn’t do my own record label. Just because I spend too much time sitting around writing songs. I don’t make phone calls very good. But I wish I were just like Ian. He can do both. He can sit around writing songs and sell bunch of records. He is cool. He is one of my heroes. I love that guy. He is awesome.

What are Ian’s views on that?

Vic Chesnutt: He’s like ‘fuck the record companies’. But grannies don’t listen to Fugazi. And that’s what I’ve been telling him. I don’t want to sell my albums to just punk rockers, who go to the indie record store and buy them. I want to sell my records to grannies who only go to the mall. I would like to be able to reach people who aren’t in the know. But I now realise that’s not ever going to happen, but ideally that’s what I would like to happen.

You’re making no compromise with music. This is a very privileged situation as an artist. But take for example David Bowie who is selling to the kids and also their grannies, he has produced some shit in his time. But had he not been producing records all throughout these years until now, I would have never seen his show on the Isle of Wight last year which was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. He is such a great artist! Sometimes it takes some courage to sell a little bit of your soul to the devil to be able to reach out further.

Vic Chesnutt: Absolutely, there’s no doubt about that. If you want to be omnipresent as David Bowie is you can’t really do it unless you deal with the devil.

My last question… is not really a question…. I’m going to quote you: “Music is like garlic”… can you beat this quote today?

Vic Chesnutt: Music is like garlic??? Mmmm.. Music is like garlic?…

You don’t have to answer that stupid question!

Vic Chesnutt: No, I like it. Thanks for reminding me that I said that because that’s kind of cool. I don’t know what the hell it meant right now…

… It’s a quote from ‘Sweet Relief II’

Vic Chesnutt: I still stand by that, because it does. Old sayings have a lot of truth, like “music soothes the savage beasts”. There’s no doubt about it. I think music is like the bible too… not just for your blood pressure, but for your dream life too.

The bible is not good for my dream life at all!

Vic Chesnutt: Well, maybe not for your dream life but for a bunch of … oops, almost said a bad word! You know, it can give you a little road map to your spiritual life.

Tina Chesnutt: You never use reference to the bible usually…

Vic Chesnutt: The bible is a fucking icon, it’s like a mountain, it’s a perfect metaphor.

For more details, visit… Vic Chesnutt's website

Photograph © Aline Giordano 2005