In the liner notes to Vic Chesnutt's 07 full-length, North Star Deserter, Jem Cohen writes, "I make films, I'm no record producer. But I needed to bring these particular people together in this particular place I thought they might hit it off."
Cohens instincts served him well. North Star Deserter added wholly new dimensions to Chesnutts already vast body of songs, and by joining forces with Guy Picciotto (Fugazi) and members of A Silver Mt. Zion and God Speed You! Black Emperor, Chesnutts grim, avant-folk tendencies were pushed to maximum overdrive in squals of distortion and dramatic, symphonic majesty. But North Star Deserter was very much a construct of Jem Cohen a personal vision of what Chesnutts albums should be, where songs, musicians and arrangements were put together like actors in a film. Chesnutt's latest album, At the Cut, finds the same players who made North Star Deserter so bold and beautiful returning, this time to operate as a band sans Cohens direction.
Chad Radford: Was the lineup for North Star Deserter really all part of Jem Cohens grand plan, or were you playing together before the idea for the album came about?
Guy Picciotto: Thats really how it all came together. Ive actually known Vic since 1988. He was playing bass in a band that opened for the band I used to play in, Fugazi, at The 40 Watt Club. And actually, the other three guys in Fugazi played with Vic -- maybe 10 years ago. They did an Olivia Newton-John cover together for a tribute project. They played Have You Ever Been Mellow, but I was out of town at the time, so I wasn't part of that.
Before the North Star record I had never actually played with Vic, but I knew him and saw him every time we played in Athens. I was a huge fan of his records and always saw him when he came through town.
Jem knew a lot of musicians from Montreal, the Silver Mt.Zion, and God Speed You! Black Emperor people, and a year earlier he brought some of us together to play a festival in Belgium. He curated a festival there and brought together people from the Ex, Patti Smith, A Silver Mt. Zion, and me and a bunch of others. That was the first time he had ever curated a musical event, so I think that was the when he started to see the possibility of combining people that had connections, and thought that a lot of them would be great to play with Vic. There was no concept behind what the record was going to be. He knew which songs he wanted Vic to play and he knew which musicians that he thought would be cool for it. He brought us up to Montreal and we just started playing together. Jem wasnt really in the classic producer role. He was coming up with a concept of what musicians should play on what song the thing about Vic is that he has hundreds and hundreds of songs that he hasnt recorded, and Jem is familiar with, and loves a lot of it, and knew that Vic had never tracked a lot of it. So he pulled out a bunch of songs that he thought would work, and he started assembling it almost the way you would direct a film, and it ended up being an incredible thing for all of us. The minute we started playing it was like 'dang, this really feels great.' Then we made the record and started touring it, and thats what really made it feel like a band; not just a session set-up, but a real band of musicians that listen to each other and solve music problems together and try figure out how to make things work.
Vic Chesnutt: I knew none of them except for Guy whom Ive known for 20 years hes a buddy of mine. But none of the other people. It was all Jems idea. He hated my two previous records, Ghetto Bells and Silver Lake, so he said he wanted to record a good Vic Chesnutt record. It was his idea to bring me up to Montreal and record with Silver Mt. Zion, God Speed! You Black Emperor and Guy.
What was his problem was with the previous two albums?
VC: There was a point when I was recording Silver Lake when I said 'damn, Jem Cohen is going to hate this!' Hes a good buddy of mine and I knew he was going to hate it. These are the words he used, Too clean.
He didnt like the production. I love those two records but I knew he was going to hate them. I understand what hes saying. They were clean, they were well thought-out and they were well recorded. Jem has particular tastes, especially about me. He likes my acoustic stuff, just me solo kind of things, but he also likes my crazy distortion. He thought there wasnt enough distortion, and not enough solo in there. If you look at North Star Deserter that's what it is. Distortion and completely stripped-down acoustic music. We felt like we were actors in a movie. He picked what songs we were going to play and who played on what songs; he would say okay, Eric Craven, you play the skateboard on this song. Guy, you play screaming lead right here in this song.
Are the songs on At The Cut fragments of ideas from North Star or is it all new?
VC: No, I fired him. He was there for it, some of it.
Kind of like the Godfather?
VC: Kind of. Hes really good friends with everyone in Silver Mt. Zion and Guy you know he directed that really great movie about Fugazi. So he was kind of the spiritual leader almost, but not really. I dont want to make him sound like a Svengali or some shit, but hes our friend, and the inspiration goes both ways. After North Star Deserter we toured a lot in Europe and we thought damn, we need to record another record because we felt like a band. Like before, I said we felt like actors in a movie or Jem Cohens wet dream of the perfect Vic Chesnutt record. This time we knew that we wanted to approach it as a band. We all produced it collectively.
GP: Its a whole different set up and a whole different project. After we did a couple of tours and played a lot in Europe we had a vision for what we could do as a band. Vic wanted the band to produce the second record. He sat us down at the beginning and played a whole mess of songs, and we just kind of cherry picked the ones that we thought wed have time to do and the ones that we thought we could come up with arrangements for, so essentially it was like working on a whole new record together with the added confidence of knowing what each person could do. The amazing thing about Vic is that hes in an incredibly, prolific, fertile zone. Ive played in a lot of bands but Ive never seen someone in the span of a year or a year-and-a-half write 150 songs, and then record three records.
Some of the songs on At The Cut were written 20 years ago, and some were written a week before. The week after he finished At The Cut he wrote like 15 or 20 new songs with Jonathan Richman, and its not like hes just throwing a bunch of crap out there. Lyrically these songs are really crafted and really considered. Vic doesnt put any bullshit out there and its really stunning for me. Ive been writing songs since I was 16 and sometimes its like pulling teeth just getting it together, but hes like a faucett.
Also, whats really interesting about Vic is that he can play by himself with a classic singer/songwriter -- with kind of a folkish approach and its amazing. But the musical foundation that he has, the melodies and his knowledge of the guitar leave so much room to build on. You can go two ways: you can be totally minimal with it, it or you can coat these amazing architectures around it, because the foundation is strong enough to hold it. Its super rare that you can strip something to the bone and it can be beautiful, but you can also build a castle around it and its also beautiful. And he can play with any kind of musician. Hes so free and open about letting you just go there and do what you hear and hes curious to hear what someone will bring to it, and if its something that he didnt expect it tickles his ear. So you never feel like youre being channeled in one direction.
VC: It felt right. When Jem brought us together at first we hit it off. I was a big Godspeed fan and a big Fugazi fan and friend for years. It felt right. I was nervous because I didnt know exactly how it was going to go but immediately I could tell that we had a musical rapport and a personal rapport. Starting with North Star Deserter, these guys really brightened my spirits. I was floundering a great deal in my musical endeavors.
You think so?
VC: I know so. I was depressed, I didnt know what to do with my music and my career has been in quite a state of flux, really for my whole career.
I see the word folk tossed about a lot when it comes to Vic Chesnutt. I understand why, but I think of his songs more as examples of what folk could be.
GP: Ive had the same experience with the word punk rock, its become so generic that its an empty bucket that you can fill with all kinds of crap, kind of like folk. Its a subjective thing, and Vic explodes any sense of genre.
Guy, you're credited on the record as a producer. Can you tell me about that role?
GP: At The Cut was a really democratic thing. Everyone who was involved with the sessions, from Howard Bilerman who was the engineer on it, to every musician that played on it, or just kind of hung around and had input. I think that since Vic and I came in from out of town we were in the studio every day because we had nowhere else to be and nothing else to be doing. Every single person involved came up with ideas in terms of arrangements and I dont know how it could have been credited to a producer in a traditional way because it really was a collaboration. And it was easy too. Like the song "Concord County Jubillee;" he showed it to us and we sat around for a couple of hours just playing it and then we tracked it live, and that was the take. Not every song was like that. The other ones were built more traditionally, piece-by-piece, but there was no feeling that there was one person calling the shots.
Everyone in the band is super passionate and a lot of them have produced records before, so there were a lot of opinions and it became sort of a long process trying to mix it and master it and figure it out. We went back and forth on a lot of things, but when I finally got a copy of the vinyl and put it on I was so stoked. A lot of times when you do something by a committee you get a case where nobody is satisfied with how it turns out. That was totally not the case. This was done by committee and for me its one of the purist feelings of satisfaction of any record that Ive worked on where what we sat out to do, and the songs were treated, really happened.
There's a lot of variety on the album as well. What are some of your favorite songs on the album?
VC: I think "Chinaberry Tree" might be my favorite.
GP: I really like "Chinaberry Tree." I think its one of the best songs that Vic has every written. For me personally the sound of "Concord County Jubilee" and the way it was recorded are really special to me. It was such a pure ensemble playing, and it barely had to be mixed. Everybody was self-mixing as they were laying the track down, and thats a really rare and beautiful thing that happens when you make records, so when I listen to it, I hear the ensemble playing and it makes me really happy.
The songs that resonate the most with me are Phillip Guston and "Granny."
GP: "Phillip Guston" is a trip. "Granny" is a perfect song. Vic dreamt it and it came out like that, and its a masterful piece, it really is.
VC: I understand "Granny" and Im really happy that you like "Phillip Guston," but I'm not sure why.
It almost sounds like a Fugazi song, and the combination of Guy's guitar and your voice go a long way for me.
VC: HEY! I LOVE IT! I never thought about it until you mentioned it, but it really does sound like a Fugazi song. I see it now, plain as day.
That song has really soared live and its become one of our favorite ones to play, and its taken on an even heavier dimension. Im really excited about it.
"Granny" is just a very evocative song.
I dont know. I keep thinking its my best song ever and I didnt even write it. I dreamt it in its entirety, exactly as it is and thats never happened to me before. Ive dreamt little pieces of songs before but this one is straight from my subconscious. Its really heavy.
I was thinking it wasnt a work of fiction at all.
Well its straight from my subconscious. In my dream I was looking up at my granny from the perspective of a child. She was at the kitchen sink at our house in Pike county, and I was crying and singing this song to her. And when I woke up the pillow was soaking wet and I was bawling, but I immediately realized that it was a great song. I was in a hotel so I reached over and grabbed the hotel stationary pad and wrote down the lyrics exactly as they were. Then I got my guitar and figured out what chords it was and wrote it. But there were two more verses and I couldnt remember them. And you know what?
They were the killerest verses of all time! I just couldnt remember them!
Oh man, that is a damn shame!
It is a damn shame, because I really thought they were some of the best verses I had come up with.
I didnt want to record it either. This is one influence that Jem Cohen had on this record, among several. One, I didnt want to record it. Jem heard me play it once and said 'you have to record that song.' I said 'absolutely not! Its not meant for this record. It wont fit, its a different thing, and I had an idea for a different project with it,' and we had words. I yelled at him! I said 'leave me the fuck alone, Jem, Im not going to put it on this record!'
Then Howard Billerman, the Hotel2tango engineer came to me. Jem had gone back to New York and Howard said, 'will you record it just for me? I really like it and we wont do anything with it.' At first I thought Howard, you fucking asshole. Okay, I'll do it just for you, but dont tell Jem.
Vic Chesnutt (w/ Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and members of A Silver Mt. Zion, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Witchies and Clare & the Reasons play the Earl on Sun. Nov. 1 $15. 8:00 p.m. 488 Flat Shoals Rd. 404-522-3950.
(Photo by Yannick Grandmont)
*Christ, Lord sorry
"Punk" style like this seems like it is the polar opposite of punk. Bradford Cox…
They're kind of starting to look like a joke of themselves. Song's good though.
All 80s movies want you...
Their show with Chris, Lord about 3 years at the Unicorn was the best.
I am a connoisseur of this real soul music like the comment above I'm glad…