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Shoot the Piano Player: An interview with Chilly Gonzales

The rapping pianist holds a unique position in pop music as musical advisor to the stars and an anachronistic artist in his own right. Here he talks to Lucia Udvardyova about working with Daft Punk, Stravinsky and music education. Photo by Alexandre Isard. 


The classically educated, Canadian, rapping piano player—who has previously collaborated with Peaches, Drake and Daft Punk—currently lives in Cologne, but has spent the last decade on the stages and in the studios of the modern music world. Chilly Gonzales played at the Electronic Beats Festival Graz this year, where we caught up with him before his warmly received Solo Piano concert to talk about music education, icons and being pop music’s favorite man for harmony.


Where have you just come from?

I came from Cologne in Germany. I live there.

You lived in Berlin before.

Yes. I lived in Berlin and Paris for almost ten years. I moved to Cologne last year. It’s a very central place and a bit more relaxed for when I’m not traveling. It’s not a great musical area—for electronic music it could be considered that—but for what I love, which is jazz and classical music, Cologne isn’t that great.

Do you like German rap?

I don’t. I like rap where I can understand the details. For me, that’s the point of rap. I listen to American rap, where it was invented. I don’t listen to a lot of Canadian classical music either, for the same reasons.

Who is your favorite classical composer?

I like a lot of German, a lot of French composers. I like Brahms a lot, Mahler is amazing. I also like some Czech composers, Dvořák, Smetana, Martinů.

How did you start with music?

My grandfather was my first teacher. Later I had a very intense two or three years of study, followed by two or three years of ‘I don’t want to study anymore, but I want to make music.’ I was very interested in being in a band and making pop music, and all of a sudden I would feel the need to learn more, to go deeper. I was always stopping and starting. I had many great teachers. I still look for people who can take the role of a teacher with me, a mentor.

What do you look for in a mentor?

I have to have a lot of musical respect in them. And I have to feel that they have something to offer, and they have to be interested in passing on the knowledge. If I spend eight hours in the studio with someone, I can learn a lot, but it’s not like having a mentor. I learn a lot by being with Daft Punk in the studio for a day, it’s fascinating, because they are Daft Punk and I’m watching and learning, but I’m not actually an electronic music producer or writing pop songs as they are. I learn from them, but I learn about how they organize themselves, how they handle their career, what their relationship is between the two people in the band. But I don’t get concrete things to use in my own music. That only comes from someone who has a really specific set of skills. The problem with modern composers is that 95 percent of them compose music that goes against my idea of pleasing people. It’s meant to be very cutting-edge and challenging, but a lot of people cannot listen to it, actually. I’m rather interested in finding a composer who is alive who respects someone like Brahms and that’s difficult to find. Michael Nyman does quite a lot of film music, he’s a great composer. I’ve been trying for a couple of years now to approach him.

In the past, if you were a part of the music world, you were either the (clasically educated) interpreter or the composer. Nowadays a lot of producers/musicians often lack the knowledge of basic musical theory.

In Western music there was always a great history of folk music, of people who don’t know on a theoretical level what exactly they are doing. But in terms of art music, at the end of the 18th century, there was a feeling that music had gone as far as it could, and everyone was looking for the next thing. Schoenberg’s idea was to make harmony a democracy, while Debussy said it’s about sound. He was right actually, because music became much more about technology and sound. These laptop producers are using the tools that are available today, the sound and timbre has become what music is about. It’s true that most electronic and rap songs are not very complex, maybe just a couple of notes.

So you have a greater affinity for their predecessors who were making all these pleasing harmonies and melodies?

A few Mozart pieces were radical at the time. It seems all very genteel now. A hundred years ago today, do you know what happened?

The Rite of Spring?

Stravinsky made a riot one hundred years ago in Paris. There is a place in radicalism in that music. I still see music the way they saw it, which is to say harmony, melody, rhythm, sound being important; but in my case, it is the sound of the piano, which is a very old instrument. I definitely feel I have a different way of looking at music than 95 percent of my generation. Very few of them are interested in getting deeper into music theory and that includes people I respect and work with, like Peaches, Boys Noize or Feist—they don’t really give a shit.

How do these two worlds come together?

They are more like an audience member who feels the result. No one needs to know what goes into the sauce as long as they enjoy it. It’s more a case of Feist singing me a melody in the studio and saying, “Yeah, I’m hearing these dark chords,” and I have to guess what’s in her mind. Because I have the theoretical knowledge, I’m in a good position to deliver 20 choices until she says, “That’s it.” Same is true for Daft Punk or some of the bigger names that I’ve worked with. They were always interested in the harmony. Harmony is hard to do if you didn’t study it, whereas with melody and rhythm, you can be a natural. I’m not angry or judgmental that most of my generation don’t care about it, because actually it helps my career that I’m one of the only ones in my age group. So if someone like Tiga, A-Trak or Boys Noize ask me a harmonic question, I feel very flattered. It’s good I took time to study this and they can use it to great effect.

Lots of these people who are classically trained also have these boundaries and remain stuck in the classical world.

Lots of people who know about music are disappointed with the new generation. I’m not. I can accept how music is today. Like I’ve said, I get a lot of work for the fact that I know the old skills. I want to be a part of modern music. My proudest moments are working with artists like Drake or Daft Punk, or my song being used in an Apple commercial. I’m just a weird, rapping piano player, and I’ve never felt I had a chance to be a part of real music. In these moments I know I’ll never be an icon, but to be with a modern day icon, and to participate and contribute, is already great.

What makes an icon these days?

Someone who changes the direction of music. It’s the place they occupy; a large part of it is the quality of music. Someone like Drake, not only is his music very different, because he combines certain pop singing elements with rap, he was one of the first rappers that didn’t have to demonstrate that he had a certain kind of lifestyle. He not only pushed the music in a different direction, he pushes the culture in a different direction. Daft Punk did the same thing. To me, that’s what an icon is.

How do you work when you write music?

I imagine the audience. At the same time I try to make something that gives a feeling. I guess it’s more focused on the feeling and the technical things that go into making that feeling. I spend a lot of time writing music. Only with a lot of time can I understand what’s an effective piece.

I’m proud that I’m the only artist who can play electronic beats on a piano. I’m proud to be the only pianist in many of the hipsters’ record collection. Maybe all they have is my two albums, and maybe if they’re lucky they have a Satie. I’m also proud to have older classical fans who come to my shows and are a little bit shocked at first because of my humor and how I act on stage, but then they get on with it, and it brings everyone together. The piano is very powerful, it has been around for four hundred years. There is still so much to say on it, new techniques to find on it.

What about your extra-musical activities, do you still act or write?

I’m working on a book for people who lost their momentum in learning music. Lots of people who had a couple of lessons, stopped. I’m going to write a series of etudes for people to get reintroduced to music, using a lot of techniques for pop music so people can hopefully play this book of music over the course of a couple of months, and then listen to music they normally do, and realize, “Ah ok, I listen to a lot of heavy metal, that has a lot of fifths to it, and I remember that because of the etude that talked about fifths.”

I remember growing up in Eastern Europe back in the day, music education was pretty wide- spread, though most kids stopped around the age of ten through 14.

In Canada we have zero real musical heritage, or real feeling of cultural education. The average Canadian wouldn’t come out of high school and know about Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring, for example. In general, the average European person has a better understanding of Western culture and art. But North America is not based on art, it’s based on entertainment. That’s what I grew up with, too. My grandfather taught me Richard Wagner, and I was watching Michael Jackson on TV. And that’s when I decided, I’m going to be a man of my time.

I believe in music education, I believe that countries that have a deep tradition of subsidizing, sometimes do it the wrong way. The countries that have the most vibrant pop culture are the countries that actually subsidize the least, like England or the US. I come from a country that has subsidized the arts a lot, and I lived in France—that is probably a country that spends the highest percentage of their GDP on subsidizing adult artists. I think this is a bad move. Forget the adults, focus on young people. Give them wide exposure to everything, and that includes Mozart and South Park. I think it’s very dangerous to take that money and give it to someone who never built an audience for themselves. You can make very strange art and still find an audience. Nobody would say that it is easy to be a humorous, rapping, piano player, but you have to dream it and say to yourself, this actually fits to who I am, and fuck it—I’m going to push until people get it. And slowly they do.

Even Cage has a lot of fans.

Nicholas Cage, exactly. [laughs]~


Watch Chilly Gonzales live at Electronic Beats Festival Graz 2013 below.

Published July 16, 2013. Words by Lucia Udvardyova.