Lost in conkers: coming clean with Vic Chesnutt
Hearsay #19 / 1998 / Interview with Ewen and Pete


"My job as a little freak is to give this freak's perspective."

They must have been big kidney stones. The ones which unfortunately hospitalised Southern gent and songwriter extraordinaire Vic Chesnutt wayyy back in '96, we mean. On 4 December of that year, Pete and Ewen arrived at The Garage to interview Mr C, armed with their cub reporter's notebook stuffed silly with questions about his then new record, About to Choke. His ill-health necessitated a postponement. To 4 August 1998. That's a long time to carry that notebook around. No such dramatic biological intervention could hinder proceedings when the interview finally happened. As you most probably know, Vic's mischievous wordsmithery and singular Georgian vision have won him acclaim and fans/ collaborators ranging from Emmylou Harris to Garbage, who have lent their vocals to his songs. Moreover, he once cheerily announced he would have killed himself if Jewel had been on Sweet Relief II! We had a few questions about his new record with Lambchop (The Salesman and Bernadette) but mostly we tackled life rather than art. Cussing, libel and advocacy of illegal practices: interviewee's own.

HEARSAY: How did the collaboration with Lambchop come about? As far as we were aware you'd done a single with Kurt Wagner, David Lowery and Mark Linkous.
Well, I knew these guys. I met Kurt a long time ago and I always wanted to record with him I thought it would be a good time to do this and basically they said 'yes’. That’s how it happened. I said, 'please, please’ and they said, 'uh, well, uh, maybe, uh... okay’. I’m sure I ruined their autumn doing it, but sorry! It meant a great deal to me.

Both yourself and Lambchop have your own very distinctive sounds. Were they entirely responsible for the sound of the record? How much does it sound like Lambchop sung by Vic Chesnutt?
Well that’s basically probably what it is really. I wanted it to sound like Lambchop, I didn't have to really say, 'oh please, it sounds a little too Lambchoppy', I pretty much let ‘em go, cut ‘em loose y’know. They're a big family, and I was pretty much just like a bad houseguest. It was their house and I just kinda messed it up a little. They're such sweet and loving people and their family is so... I was very jealous of the Lambchop dynamic. I really felt lucky to just step in to the shower of love that is Lambchop!

David Lowery told us he was just wandering by a studio in Athens and wound up playing on one of your albums. Do you enjoy random collaborations, letting the sparks fly?
Yeah I think that's a great thing to happen, it's really important. But y’know, I’m a solo artist so I guess I'm free. I guess it's harder if you're already in to go, 'hey c'mon in and write some songs with me’. I don't have anybody to offend, it's just myself and it's so lonely being a singer-songwriter. It's so lonely, so I crave collaboration.

What’s your favo(u)rite power tool?
It's easy. It's easy! A Dremel tool! D’ya know what a Dremel is? It's a little hand-held routing tool. I love it. Love ‘em, love ‘em, love 'em.

A lot of your songs, especially early ones, seem to come from a child's perspective. Is that an expression of something in your adult life?
Nostalgia's a big part of my emotional life. A lot of songwriters, Victoria [Williams] is the same way... I guess it's just trying to tap into the wider experience that childhood is. Innocence is lost when you get older and it's holding up a camera to the past a little candle in the ugly ugly dark spaces of my mind, to see what it was like I think there's always messages for adults in the crazy experiences of childhood.

There's a noticeable progression in the way that your albums were recorded, from 'one afternoon with voice and acoustic guitar' through to the playful use of the studio on About to Choke. Are you feeling more inclined to use the studio as a place to create rather than just record moments?
I always wanted to… even on Little I was experimenting a little bit but I only had three or four hours in there. We weren't making an album that day, we were just fuckin' around. I didn't know that we were making an album. I was experimenting with sounds, fumy little keyboards through tiny amps. I think that's what the studio is for, it's a little science lab, always. It’s very important to get very close to the explosion without killing yourself Alchemy is something to strive for and I will continue to do that even if I make a solo acoustic record, which I might I'm not sure what I'll do in the future. This Lambchop record is mostly live, all 14 of us playing at the same time, so this is a lot like Little in that respect that a lot of it was completely live.

If you 'phone God, do you get the answerphone? Does he return your calls?
No, God has a secretary of course. I'm not sure which one it is, I'm not Catholic enough to know. I'm sure they know, God knows, I'm sure the patron saint of receptionists up there who takes all the calls... No, God does not call you back. No, no, no. No matter who it is God will not talk to you. You don't wanna talk to God. Personally it would shatter the myth, it would be awful if God had a Welsh accent it would just suck.'Oh, no! I thought God was Greek!'

You use poetry directly, setting Stevie Smith and God is Good (inspired by Wallace Stevens) - what inspiration do you get from poetry and writing?
I love modern poetry and novels and stories and such. You can't help but be inspired sometimes if it triggers emotions. But half the time TV adverts or whatever inspire me just as much, or bad sitcoms, or the newspaper. I strive always to be wide open and ready to catch inspiration when it slaps me. I wanna be ready to ejaculate at any minute! Sometimes I can't but I'm ready! I wanna be. In my heart of hearts I wanna be ready to ejaculate at the slightest little brush of friction!

That thought only goes one place! The way you address the subject of sex in your songs (eg 'modern love affair song') is very idiosyncratic. How come?
I don't like to write love songs straight out How many other people do it better? My job as a little freak is to give this freak's perspective. That modern love affair song purely came out of my real life, a completely easy kind of diary for me to take from. This new record has a far greater percentage of sexual content than probably all of my other records put together. Very odd.

It's perhaps the rhythm of Lambchop bringing it out of you.
Well, they would probably like to think that. But, it's just that for some reason I wanted to make this fiction, this little short story. It just happened to have a lot to do with the sexual fantasy of this salesman character and his little relationships, all kinds of funny little fantasies that he has about this person Bernadette.

What inspired this central concept?
I think it came about when I was getting the songs together I immediately noticed this relationship between Bernadette and the salesman. I just saw it, it struck me: 'Oh Lord! Something's going on here I didn't know about!' So I started pushing and packing all of these other songs into this relationship and stacking them one on top of the other like cards in solitaire. Nobody else probably sees it except myself but it was very important to me that every song had its place on this record. We recorded them in order, first song first, second song second, and spent a great deal of time arranging it like that. Picking the songs, writing the songs, everything was very clear in my mind, this whole story.

Meaning that's not usually the case, knowing which songs to leave off?
I always struggle. Got a lot of extra songs. I always have a few brand new songs ready to go before I start recording a record. Twenty, thirty a year. Over the years that adds up to a lot, I've only recorded, what is this, my seventh record. It's always hard for me to pare down which ones I'm gonna record, which direction I wanna go. When you start looking at a hundred, two hundred songs they can't help but form patterns.

So is there an outlet for those extra songs?
Maybe in the future, I would hope. You never know. I often feel like this is the end, I always feel like that…

After every record?
Yeah. Like right now I have this strong feeling that this is the end and that was it my legacy is carved out. It's all over!

I suppose that'd mean you didn't ever put out any crap records if you always thought you'd be judged on the last one.
Well no, that's not true. You'd like to think that I've been really proud of all my records but there always things looking back on it that I would do differently. All of them, every one. I'm not happy with any of my records really. I'm always like, 'Oh! I should've done that Oh!'

When you say the concept of the new album is not necessarily apparent to other people, does it bother you that people miss the point or do you enjoy others' (mis)interpretations of your lyrics?
Oh I do, a great deal! I love that it's completely enjoyable. I remember one of my famous songs is Isadora Duncan off my first record, everybody always loves that song. But I remember when I first released it somebody came up to me after I played it on stage and they were like, 'I really love that song about: "I can't believe you own this Audi too!" You own an Audi, I own an Audi.' That really cracked me up, I just thought 'man, that's great!' That's why I write songs like I do is because sometimes individual interpretation is what is called for. That's what makes the songs, that's why I do ‘em like I do ‘em, so they're open for that. Often whatever you imagine is gonna be more powerful than what I imagine, I hope.

Does California's decriminalisation of certain medicinal herbs make it a more bearable place to visit?
I don't think I've been to
California since that's happened. I've been talking to Victoria, who can grow a pot plant in her house without getting arrested – I think that's probably one of the greatest things that Western civilisation has seen in a long time. I just know that in America there's a lot more violent crime than here and elsewhere in the western civilisation. Rapists and armed robbers and child molesters are being released from jail every day because they have to make room for the poor lowly crack addicts and pot smokers. It's just ridiculous. Its quite civilised to let a few poor little people grow a weed. There’s a new book about the history of the drug war. I need to get to the bottom of that. I never could really understand where the hysteria started in Western civilisation. It seems kind of ludicrous. I can't really fathom what it is, considering that hemp was an integral part of life for years and years and years, and years and years and years and years and I guess that they will argue that so was cannibalism. We had to outlaw that! I can see their point, sorta. You can't just stay with the status quo if it's evil.

Speaking of evil, what will you do if Tipper Gore becomes First Lady and outlaws music?
I like Tipper Gore! Tipper's fine! She got a little bit too evangelical. A friend of mine started the PMRC with her and had to bow out and Tipper got going a little bit too strong. I can understand her point - as a mother of young kids she started getting freaked out. Movies are rated, I can understand that. If I was a lazy parent and I really sucked and I was too busy to pay attention to what my kids were doing, I'm sure I would want the government to step in and tell me what was appropriate or not. But Tipper's fine, her husband is the one you have to watch... I don't mind rating records, that's fine. I know how I was when I was a teenager: if it says ‘Explicit Lyrics' that's the one I'm gonna shoplift first; that's the one that's going down my trousers right there.

That's easier these days. Try getting a 33rpm down the trousers.
But now they've got all these special high-tech things that stop you from stealin’ - back in my day you would just tuck and run. Censorship is one thing; but I do think that rating records, putting a restriction on teenagers buying it is better than outlawing it They're gonna do what they gotta do, those evil fucks. They're gonna stop kids from hearing the word 'anus'. And if it takes putting a sticker on it to calm them down then I'm all for it, as opposed to throwing Snoop Doggy Dogg in jail.

Do the vividly drawn characters in your songs draw on real people or from a Southern tradition of folk tales and storytelling?
I'm inspired a great deal by folk songs and country songs. I was inspired initially by these kind of songs to start writing. Now I do draw on real people a lot but half the time it's all imaginary also. It's about 50/50, I would say.

Do the real people ever recognise themselves?
Yeah, I've gotten in trouble quite a lot and sometimes people think I wrote about them and I really didn't which is really funny. People go around telling others, 'that song's about me!' They don't know!

Where travel and displacement appear in your songs, is travel an end in itself or is it simply empty time to use for writing?
When I recorded my first record I was basically a stationary person, had been my whole life. One small radius was all I'd ever been to. Then when Little came out and I first started travelling, it ended up being a fascinating and inspiring process, seeing and hearing different cultures and languages. Flying down the road in a car and looking out and seeing little snapshots of a scene was very conducive to my style of songwriting. The flashes and zooming by was a perfect kind of inspiration to me When you said earlier about vivid characters, hardly ever are my characters really vivid, I would think, but maybe their eye is vivid, the rest is blurry. Most of the time they're rather surreal, I think. I can never zero in as much as I want to. They're moving by quickly, out-of-focus snapshots out the window. I don't know why, but this is what's important to me in creating. And somebody recently brought up, 'God, man, you used to write about
Georgia. Now you don't write about Georgia any more. What's your problem? You gittin' too big for your britches?'

And you obviously don't share Wallace Stevens's high opinion of Florida?
Oh, I do! I love
Florida. But he was in Key West, that's a different kinda deal. All my family comes from Central Florida, North Florida so I've a great deep love for it. It's where my whole heritage comes from, but it is a pathetic place: they've completely fucked it. It is fucked. It is sad and horrible what they've done to Florida, even though I do love it and think about it a lot. People go there to die. My friend went there and he died, killed himself I couldn't let it alone, that song just leapt out of me like… ejaculation.

Quite anthemic for ejaculation, wouldn't you say? Takes all kinds, I suppose…
Creativity is like that: you're tantalised and then it flows. What can you say? You're stimulated and then something flows from it. The metaphor is unmistakable.

What's your favourite Dunkin' Donut? Sounds like a trivial question, but it's actually a long and heavily researched Freudian barometer…
Well, yes! My favourite donut is the chocolate glazed. I could eat thousands of 'em. I don't like jelly donuts. There's a Dunkin' Donuts very near my house.

Do you feel like a puppet master controlling language or does it have a mind of its own?
Sometimes I feel like Jackson Pollock and sometimes I feel more like Salvador Dali. Sometimes I do feel like a puppet master but sometimes I just let the turds fall. I think my talent lies in recognising the relationships of the images in the fog.

Your songs are more join-the-dots than Jackson Pollock. His dots are already joined up.
Looks like a whole lot o' whacking going on to me! And that's what's cool about it. It's like Charlie Parker in a way. It’s a lot of testosterone unhinged. That's what men like about it, I think, 'Oh, look at that, that's a whole lot of jackin' off right there, buddy!' Pure, stupid fuckin' around, going 'look how great I am'. Pure crap, both of em, but you gotta love it! They were both geniuses in their way. It's really important to me to feel I can be evocative.

If you had to choose a celebrity to stalk you for the next year, who would it be?

[Completely stumped for over two minutes]

God... damn! That's hard. Uh. Damn! Oh my God! I keep trying to throw out these funny alternatives but I know it'd only embarrass me later. Maybe... How bout…? Shit! Puff Daddy or somebody like that 'cos they have really good weed. No, see, that would come back to embarrass me later. I keep trying to think of some hot babe that could stalk me… but I can't think of any that I actually like. Or somebody literary. No. Maybe ------ ------ ­'cos she gets the best cocaine of anybody. She'd have loads of the killer coke... not that I ever do cocaine anymore, but if ------'s hangin’ around, ya might as well! When in snow, do as the snowboarders do!

You deal with dark subject matter with a characteristic lightness of touch. Do comedy and tragedy go hand-in-hand for you?
It has to be. The funniest things are tragic. The comic barb is what makes it stick sometimes, what makes it hold in. With the way I am physically, if it wasn't funny it'd be too much. Even when I was in high school my songs were always dark, the ones that I thought 'this is a great song,' it would be because there would be this funny bit. So I just kept chanelling it that way, towards the one little funny bit, the barb. It's my technique. I think most people don't even think about it. They hear the song and they think it's sad and don't hear past that.

A lot of funny songwriters get mistaken for 'slit your wrists' music.
When I was a teenager I really liked Imagine by John Lennon. I thought it was so subversive because it's so singsongy and beautiful. This is the kinds thing that Baptists will listen to and go, ‘Oh, that's a beautiful song!' but it's really saying: 'fuck you to your whole way of life.' That's got a lot to do with what inspired me to write songs. Yknow I was a comedian before, that's what I wanted to do. I wasn't that good at it even though I made the people where I grew up laugh, I recognised right away that I wasn't gonna be a great comedian, but humour is important.

Complete the following rock'n'roll anecdote in not more than 20 words: I was trashing a motel room with xxxxxx xxxxxx when…
I fucking hate xxxxxx xxxxxx, I wouldn't trash nothing with him except his own career if I could. I hate that fucker. What an arrogant fuck, a fucking no-talent cocksucking motherfucker, I hate that fucker, he just sucks, and he's fucking ruined people's lives this fucker, his own fucking power trip, thinks he's some fantastically great emotional actor, he's just complete shit, a social climber completely, steps on others to get to where he wants to go and lies about it every step of the way, I can't even watch him in anything, I hope he dies a poor washed-up…, I hope people finally see him for what he is, a fucking evil fuck! I hate him! Hate him! It's sad that he has to be an evil fucking fuck but he is. Sorry!

Who would you have play you in the Vic Chesnutt Story? Presumably not xxxxxx xxxxxx. I don't think xxxxxx xxxxxx would do it after what you just said about him.
If he thought he'd make a million dollars off of it I'm sure he'd give it a go! I'm sure he'd fuck everybody involved too on the way there. He'd completely suck it dry and let the others die of starvation on the way there. If the screenwriter of the Vic Chesnutt Story was drowning in the river he would definitely throw him an anvil instead of a lifesaver. I know that for a fact. It's hard to say. I'd have to play myself, of course! Or maybe we could get Dweezil Zappa. That's the stupidest thing I've ever said! Or maybe Kate Moss!

Are there any products you would consider advertising? Apart, obviously, from…
Oh yeah, lots! I like wasabi: that green stuff that you have on sushi, that hot stuff. I quite like the soy bean industry. I could definitely sponsor those.

Did other people's versions of your songs on Sweet Relief 2 give you new ideas for songwriting? Did it encourage you to think about other ways songs could be recorded or performed?
Oh sure, both of those. I really liked Mary Margaret O’Hara's version of
Florida, how she recorded it. It's very stripped down, very inspiring. At one point something taps the microphone and you can hear the whole room. She sings close and far, she moves around a lot when she's singing, and that's exciting the way you could see the room immediately when she moved a certain way. I also like the Red Red Meat/Smashing Pumpkins version of Sad Peter Pan, it was very cinematic. The treatments of these two songs inspired my own approach.

About To Choke seems to have a thread of atrophy running through it.
That was a random splattering of that era. Those recording sessions happened during a sad, pathetic time in my life, I was a little bit crazy. It's funny that what ended up being on the record was all coming from a certain area in my imaginary life, very autobiographical and very similar. I was fighting against my record before that quite hard. it just kind of… erupted!

Don't say it! – Did you ever finish your novel?
No, I've still never written it. I've been working on it a great deal though. I'll probably never finish it but it's fun to work on it. It's totally different than writing a song, where you can erupt and wipe off. With a novel it's like spew and then you gotta spew on top of that and another spew. Sometimes you miss and it's off the mark and you've gotta scrape it up and pile it back on there, until it all piles up into this precarious pile that could fall over and squish you to death. It's really hard to keep interest for me. Someday I'll get better at it I need to take a laptop on the road when I tour, If I’m locked in the car I might be able to work.

Do you have any philosophy on life?
I'm sure I do, yes. I just can't verbalise it. I have several philosophies that are all very conflicting by which I live my life, and thus the complicated character that I am - a renowned xxxxxx xxxxxx hater... One philosophy is, I want to kill that fucker, or at least kill his aura of genius. But that's not a philosophy as such. You should've asked me 'who would you like to stalk?' I'd like to stalk him, make his life a living hell... but I'm too lazy.

What music is in your hand luggage?
Lucinda's new record,
Victoria's new record, the first two Elfpower records - a band from Athens. I love ‘em. I've got this Fury records compilation, 50 songs on two CDs, kind of second-rate Stax/Volts. Really brilliant stuff. Kristin Hersh's new record, too,

And what are you reading?
I've just finished All the Pretty Horses for the second time. And back issues of the New Yorker from the past year. Every other issue I wouldn't read at all, so I've been going back over the ones I didn't read, catching up on all that kinda crap.

The New Yorker?! How remote is New York City for a Georgian?
It’s a different world from
Athens. I love New York, always been inches away from moving there. I lived in LA for almost a year once, so I do well in a city situation, even though I grew up in the boonies and live in Athens which is the boonies with a little bit of culture thrown in. I do really well in New York, I'm much more popular there than in the south where I come from. I'm just a cosmo-type guy I guess. I don't know why. It’s a long way away, but I talk to New Yorkers every day on the phone. I can't help it.

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