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Made in Berlin: Chilly Gonzales

From rap records and performance art to piano albums and chamber music, ex-Berliner Chilly Gonzales returns in music documentary Shut Up And Play The Piano. It opens in Berlin cinemas of Sep 20.

Image for Made in Berlin: Chilly Gonzales

Photo by Alexandre Isard

From rap records and performance art to piano albums and chamber music, ex-Berliner Chilly Gonzales returns in music documentary Shut Up And Play The Piano. Shot between 2014 and 2016, Philipp Jedicke’s film chronicles the Canadian musician/showman’s career and explores the artist’s many facets, all with the kinetic energy and boastful humour one has come to expect from the musical polymath. We sat down for an exclusive one-on-one with Jason Beck, aka: Chilly Gonzales, to talk about the film, Berlin and The Gonzervatory, his music school project which currently gets him up in the mornings.

You have a co-producer credit on this film. How hands-on were you?

I did the movie because Philipp asked and I said yes! (Laughs) I was asked before, but it felt just right this time. I felt that it was an interesting time to document how much my life had changed. Being co-producer was more like a safety valve, one which meant that I was going to open up to Philipp more than if I’m being careful. Philipp had to trust that I wasn’t going to backseat edit, and it went well. He was surprised with how little I did!

We spoke to Philipp Jedicke after the Berlinale premiere, and he described you as very private and gentle. He also said that as Chilly, you were less forgiving…

People who know me know that when I’m on stage, it’s a fantasy. And that’s generally the case with most artists – people tend to think that Peaches is having orgies after every one of her shows, and if you read what she’s actually speaking about, it’s not “Hey everyone, go have promiscuous sex,” but it’s a much deeper, political and positive message. With me, people think “Oh, that guy’s bouncing off the walls, he must be on coke!” No, I go on stage to be able to have the impunity to be who I wish I was, to be an arrogant musical genius, to be loved in spite of my flaws, and because of them. That’s the fantasy and not how life actually works. At least not mine!

In the film, you mention your relationship with the press, what you call the “media bullshit”. In agreeing to do this project, you opened yourself up to the media bullshit from film critics now, not just the music critics… Have you found this contradiction irksome in any way, during the making of the film or during the promotional rounds?

I do believe what I said in the film, but it’s not everything that I believe. It was an interesting angle to present to the film. Of course, the press is one of the necessary parts of the process and I truly do believe that if I stop doing it, then I would regret it. I still feel like I want an audience and to grow my audience, and I’ve gone through many phases. For a while, I tried to make it part of my performance. I took interviews as seriously as I did concerts. Then it was more about trying to be real, and then I got burned in a different way. In the end, I guess there’s no way to really reinvent it and you take it on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes you have nice moments with people, like now, and sometimes it’s not as nice. Perhaps people who see the movie before they interview me now will actually up their game, do more research… I’ve actually felt like the quality of interviews has been higher since the film, so I’m doing my part! I’m doing God’s work here! (Laughs)

The film in many ways feels like a love letter to Berlin…

Yeah, there’s some footage in there that really captures it! We got really lucky.

You say in the film that Berlin is a “city of outsiders” and that it was “wilder and more fascinating than our fantasies”. After Paris, now Cologne, how do you look back on your Berlin days?

It’s where Chilly Gonzales was born! Berlin was the huge lightning bolt of inspiration. It told me to follow my instincts and try things. It’s a place that lets you reinvent yourself, especially back in those days. I think it’s still there, but of course, there’s always going to be people who say “It was better before, bla bla bla.” I’m still here very often – I hang out with Peaches, go to the studio with Nils Frahm, have dinner with Cameron Carpenter. Life’s pretty good and Berlin’s still got a great vibe.

You describe a time in Berlin to Sibylle Berg when it was “all concept and no music” and that you were glad that phase didn’t last too long. How do you feel looking back at that time?

It was fun to look back at footage and images from the time. I enjoy seeing all the steps that lead to what I’m doing now. What I find amazing is that I bounced from one extreme to the other. I was trying to test the limits. I’ve integrated both sides over the last five years. People asked themselves: “Hold on, is this the same person who was just spitting on me in the front row and is now quiet and playing Erik Satie pieces on the piano?” I can be a musician that’s humble before all of the music that came before me, through things like the piano records and The Gonzervatory, and people seem to understand that contradiction more.

Why the Gonzervatory, currently based in Paris? Is it another facet of Chilly Gonzales, the educator?

Without knowing too much about music education theory, I started to have theories based on what happened to me over the 10 years that made me the performer I am today. And I sort of retro-engineered everything that happened to me to the students. I wanted them to see over the course of eight days that if you play with others without any goal, you’re suddenly free to trust your instincts.

How do you do that?

By choosing a small group of people that I thought would become a mini family, and by creating some safe spaces with pressure, but the pressure isn’t coming from themselves. I would tell them: “You, Ukrainian jazz saxophonist and you, rapper from Houston, here’s your egg timer – you have 10 minutes to come back with a song with only two notes in the whole song.” There’s some forced improvisation and because it’s in a safe space, they can let go and try it. And at the end of the week, they’re surprised because they never thought they could write 23 songs in one day! I feel like I’m onto something with it, very much like I did when I first started performing as Chilly Gonzales. Over the next 10 years, I can really imagine The Gonzervatory as something I can really enjoy growing old doing. It’s the project I dream about and think about when I wake up in the morning, and doing a Solo Piano III record is the opposite of that.

Solo Piano III comes out in September and you’ve described it not only as completing a trilogy but also as a reflection of “the beauty and the ugliness around”. Do you find inspiration in current events?

Some people often have direct inspirations, but for me, it happens a lot in soundchecks and at friends’ houses. I feel like my piano at home is good for working out the ideas in the long-term. Other than that, of course, my antennas are always up – I do quite a bit of reading, quite a bit of podcast listening and all that kind of stuff can lead to inspiration.

Anything in particular that has recently piqued your interest?

I’m really fascinated by stand-up comedy and the blurry line between certain comedic performances and something you might call performance art. I’m also very interested by rap, the entrepreneurial nature of it and the way rappers think is something that will always inspire me. I love obsessives and those who dare to break certain rules, and I guess that’s what The Gonzervatory – to come back to it because I’m so obsessed with it – is about. Whether it’s the inventor of Pilates, the first female bull fighter or Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebru, the Ethiopian woman who decided to go study classical music in Europe and come back and invent this incredible style of music… All these people are obsessives who question some aspect of what’s allowed. They inspire me.

You’ve released rap albums, chamber music, written an études book, broken a Guinness World Record for continual solo piano performance, playing over 200 songs in 27 hours… and now there’s the film. Do you ever get nervous about running out of things to do?

Yeah, I think things are taking a different form now with The Gonzervatory and energy flows in a different way as time goes on. It’s like I say in the movie, there was no religion in our house, but in a way ambition and success were the currency. It’s not about money, but about getting good at something and getting people to notice it. It’s a lot like people who have been brought up with heavy religious backgrounds and still feel like Jesus is watching them. I still feel in a way that ambition is watching me.

You took a sabbatical in 2016. Were you getting fed up with performing?

No. There was just a moment where, on my level, I felt like I’d had enough to eat in terms of getting energy back from people and getting that recognition. I still want it but I want to create more positive energy as a result of it, and that’s why The Gonzervatory exists. Of course, it’s still immensely satisfying for my ego to have created my own music school with the name ‘Gonz’ in it. In some ways, it’s still about making my mark on the world. I’ll always have that all-in, pedal-to-the-metal energy that started out with my Berlin years, but I’ve figured out that an entertainer is an artist who is aware of their audience, and what an entertainer does alone is art, and what an entertainer does in public is entertainment. And that’s what I like in many ways about Shut Up And Play The Piano – you see both sides.

The film ends with you crowd-surfing to the sounds of a full symphony orchestra and cuts to black with you asking the audience: “Who touched my arse?” Did you ever find out?

(Laughs) I did not. But if you want to do some forensic video research, let me know! All joking aside though, stagediving for women is a nightmare. The women I know who’ve done it have told me real horror stories, and not many people would dare to do that with guys. It’s yet another area where the horrible double-standard is very present. Things like cupping and groping happen to guys, but clearly at a far-reduced percentage compared to female artists. It’s important to create a bond with the audience but it’s sad that some can take advantage of that. But the answer to your question is that I don’t think anyone touched my arse in an inappropriate way – it was more a statement on the fact that probably 200 people touched my arse that night!

Shut Up And Play The Piano is out in Berlin cinemas on September 20. See our OV search engine for showtimes.

Check out our Berlinale interview with Philipp Jedicke, and if you’re itching to see Gonzo in the flesh as well, Gonzales grabs the spotlight at Haus der Berliner Festspiele for three consecutive nights in November to deliver pieces from not only brand-new Solo Piano III, but the previous two Solo Piano records as well. (Nov 21-23, 20:00.)