Sound and Vision
Vic Chesnutt's supergroup
By Jim Caligiuri,
12:48PM, Wed. Dec. 2, 2009
Vic Chesnutt has collaborated with an unusual range of artists: Michael Stipe, Lambchop, Bill Frisell, Elf Power, Widespread Panic, the Cowboy Junkies.
In 2007, he released North Star Deserter, combining forces with filmmaker Jem Cohen, who acted as album producer and brought in Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto and members of Canadian orchestral rock ensembles Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion. The union resulted in another disc, the recently released At the Cut.
Chesnutt brings his boisterous folk music and backing gang to the Central Presbyterian Church this Saturday, Dec. 5.
Geezerville: How’s the tour going?
Vic Chesnutt: I think we’re making some of the best rock & roll that’s ever been made. And I’m not the most confident dude, ya know. This band is the most powerful band any singer-songwriter has ever had. It’s loud, and it’s delicate and bombastic and beautiful all at the same time.
G: How did you meet Jem Cohen?
VC: Jem Cohen says we met in the Eighties sometime, when he came to Athens [Georgia] on a road trip. He met me, he remembers it. I don’t remember it all. He stopped by this coffee shop where I was a fixture. But then I consciously actually remember meeting him, I think, at the New Music Seminar in 1990. I think I met him at Tramps in New York in 1990. When I really got to know him was when he was helping with the documentary about me, when I was recording West of Rome. From then on, he’s been like my best friend.
G: I know some musicians go outside the music business to help produce records, and I think that’s an interesting concept.
VC: I worked with Jem doing some soundtrack stuff and, like I said, I’ve known him for 20 years. I trust him and I trust his opinion. He hated the records I made for New West. I knew he was going to hate those records. I said it to myself at one point. I said, “Jem Cohen’s gonna hate this muthafucker.” He’s an asshole. I love those records, I think they’re amazing. He actually told me, “I want to make a good Vic Chesnutt record.” I trusted him and he had brilliant ideas.
G: How far did that trust go with record-making?
VC: North Star Deserter was Jem’s thing. I let him pick all the songs. He picked every musician that played on it. He even did arrangements. He said, “You’re going to record it in Montreal.” It’s all his thing. It’s almost his vanity project. But then when I met all these people, the Silver Mt. Zion, the Godspeed people, after we recorded, we went on tour and it gelled into a thing of its own. It felt like a band. Then I knew that we wanted to make another album, in a more democratic way. So I fired Jem. He was there at the session and he did the album artwork and actually picked a couple of the songs. but I fired him. I didn’t want him to be the boss of this record and, really, everybody had a hand in it.
G: You say in the credits for In the Cut that everyone had a hand in producing. How did that work? Sometimes too many hands can make a mess.
VC: Yeah, it’s amazing how put together this album is. It’s very much an adult album. Maybe that’s the wrong word, but it really seems realized. Each song has its own treatment. It’s an incredible brain trust, this band. The breadth of rock & roll knowledge and talent is ridiculous.
G: Did the fact that all these players turned into a band surprise you?
VC: I was a fan of Silver Mt. Zion and I’ve known Guy from Fugazi for 20 years, so I knew I wanted to exploit what these guys did. I wrote some of the songs thinking about them, writing things they could really hit. Then after touring with them I knew exactly what we could do and we had such a good rapport. It was like a family. We were in love with each other. It’s crazy. We are and we were.
G: Have you ever had a period of time when you were at a crossroads with songwriting? You’ve been so prolific over the years, you haven’t really had any down time.
VC: Oh, I’ve had saggy eras in my songwriting. I haven’t written a song in months right now because I’ve been taking a little break.
G: Does that have anything to do with being on the road?
VC: I take notes on the road. Sometimes I write in the hotel rooms. I’m not doing it right now because I had two records that just came out. I’ve had eras when I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I kind of lost my way. There was a transition between my solo work in the early Nineties, when I was transforming from a solo folk singer into a guy who plays with distortion and plays in a band. I kind of felt like I lost my way from my earlier days. I couldn’t remember exactly what it was that I did that was unique to me. I felt like that in the mid-1990s.
G: When the New York Times reviewed a recent concert of yours, they described it as "apocalypse in folky melody.” Do you agree with that?
VC: I totally see what they’re saying because it’s folk music. I’m playing acoustic guitar and the dynamics of this band is unprecedented. There’s never been a folk singer with the dynamics of this band. When it slams, it slams like no other band in history. You can physically see it on people’s faces. A guy shouted out at a show in Athens recently, “Louder isn’t better.” I disagree in this case. I said something rude to him, I can’t remember exactly, but to me it is. There’s the intellectual aspect to my songwriting – I’m an intellectual guy, very arty – but then there’s the physical power of the actual volume that this band brings, that sends it to another emotional, physical level.
G: Some of the songs on this record reminded me of progressive rock, like early King Crimson or Genesis when Peter Gabriel was in the band. There are really stark, quiet moments and then there are moments of terror. I know now it’s described as post-rock. I was wondering if you were familiar with any of that?
VC: The first King Crimson album I was obsessed with for my whole life, basically. That was one of my God records. On this record, a lot of that is the Godspeed/ Silver Mt. Zion influence. They are very much a prog-rock band in their way, or orchestral rock. We lost two members of the band to the flu, so were down to seven members. But there’s never been a band like this.
G: You said the song “Granny” came to you in a dream. Has that ever happened to you before?
VC: Never in its entirety like that. I’ve dreamed lines before. I’ve dreamed songs and couldn’t remember them when I woke up even though I tried. This was exactly as it was in my dream. In fact, there were two more verses in my dream that I couldn’t remember and they were the best lines, the best verses I’ve ever written.
G: I’m always curious about the songwriting process and something like that is rare but fascinating.
VC: It’s straight from the subconscious to the tape machine. It’s an incredible gift. It’s thrilling. I’m jealous of my subconscious because that’s a fucking great song.