Vic Chesnutt: Short Chore, Great Reward
Wednesday 16 April @ 14:00:29
by Tom Hallett
The first thing that becomes clear when discussing singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt’s latest album, Silver Lake, with the disparate cast of musical characters who helped form and shape the record is that each and every one were absolutely mesmerized by the man himself. The second thing that strikes you is the awe and wonder they all have for the location where the sessions took place. The Paramour mansion is perched on the highest hill in Silver Lake, home to the original Walt Disney Studios lot, and a microcosm of everything that’s good about Southern California; lush foliage, trees and free-roaming wildlife, an incongruous slice of paradise nestled comfortably above the roar and din, the hookers, bums, junkies, cops, tourists and lost souls haunting “The Boulevard.”
The grand old manse is a relic from bygone days when Ford was still the only auto manufacturer that mattered; when radio ruled the airwaves; when silent film stars were the nation’s idols. A short walk down the wide, echoing hallways of this particular slice of pop culture history brings you to a sprawling, welcoming room full of instruments, recording equipment and bright beams of late afternoon sunlight. Built and first occupied by silent film star Antonio Moreno (he was a contemporary of Rudolph Valentino, and a sensation in early Hollywood), aka “The Sheik,” the very air seems to dance with joyful, lascivious spirits. And what better place for Chesnutt, whose very essence is that of a joyful, lascivious spirit (he once called himself a naughty fatalist, and agrees that description still rings true today), to record what is surely his magnum opus to date? Boasting a guest book signed by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Fatty Arbuckle, the opulent dwelling more closely resembles the rich man’s retreat it once was than a work station of any sort.
“Sometimes I was worried that it was getting to be too much like a vacation,” cracked the notoriously sharp-witted, thirtysomething songsmith in a recent phone interview from his home in Athens, Ga. “I mean, here we are in the coolest spot in L.A., it’s just fucking gorgeous. There was skunks and coyotes running around above Hollywood! Hawks are flying around, so it had its own kind of little food chain going on right here! It was incredible. In a giant old mansion that was once a silent film star’s home.” Chesnutt—along with every other person who worked on his New West Records debut—credits Moreno’s former home and its fantastic vibes for helping influence his latest work, but he’s also typically saucy about the experience: “I couldn’t help but think of the movie stars fuckin’ in the bushes. (laughs) I’m sure in the roaring ’20s you know, they were fuckin’ everywhere! So it was real excitin’.”
Silver Lake, Chesnutt’s ninth album (not counting various side projects and contributions to records by the Dashboard Saviors, Jack Logan, Brute, Lambchop, Sparklehorse, and Widespread Panic), marks not only a high point for the man creatively, but professionally and personally as well. It was released nearly 20 years to the day—Easter, 1983, to be exact—that he was involved in a traumatic automobile accident which left him paralyzed and uncertain whether his musical gifts were forever lost. A hardy, determined soul, Vic soon recovered enough to begin writing what he calls “short stories, poems and slogans” and putting them to music on a small, Casio-like synthesizer called an Omnichord. “I got it way back when I got out of the hospital back in 1983, I think,” he recalls. “When I’d broke my neck and couldn’t play guitar anymore, my parents bought me this little Omnichord where you can push one button and it plays the whole chord for ya. And so I could write songs on it. And then I still use it all the time, I love it!”
He immersed himself in poetry, literature and music (he was equally inspired by Emily Dickinson and Leonard Cohen), and eventually retaught his partially paralyzed hands to play guitar. Moving around from rural Georgia to Nashville and back to Athens again, Vic eventually caught the ear of REM’s Michael Stipe, who ushered him into a studio post-haste. Chesnutt’s Stipe-produced 1990 debut album, Little, was a critical success as well as a college radio fave, and the spare, brittle story-songs it showcased proved he was a notch above your average singer/songwriter. Word began to spread about the spritely musical poet, and soon he had fans from coast-to-coast, including many of the artists who would eventually contribute to Silver Lake.
By the mid-’90s, Vic had four albums under his belt, had toured extensively at home and abroad, and was the subject of both a documentary film (“Speed Racer”) and a tribute album (Sweet Relief 2). When he scored a small role in the Billy Bob Thornton film “Sling Blade” and a recording contract with Capitol Records, it looked as if he’d finally begun to reap his just rewards. But behind the scenes, Chesnutt had battled both depression and the bottle, and the pressure he was feeling was evident on (indeed, in the very title of) his Capitol debut, About To Choke. With the staunch support of his wife, Tina, close friends and some heavy hitters in the music world, Vic rose above his personal demons, left Capitol Records on good terms, and revisited his roots.
Nowadays, he shrugs off those dark times, preferring to concentrate on living in the moment. “Yeah, you know, I talked to a bunch of people who would come up to me, and be all weepy, oh, you’re such a hero for what you do. I don’t think I could do it. And I tell them everytime: You would do it. You know? I didn’t do anything that brave, except continuing to live, and that’s not that brave. You do what you’ve got to do, everybody does what they gotta do. I tried to commit suicide many times, it just never took. My fuckin’ heart must just be stronger than it oughta be.” He says life without alcohol has changed things for the better, as well. “I ain’t had a sip o’ that in a long—quite a long—time. It’s been a couple of years since I had any liquor.”
His next two albums (1998’s The Salesman And Bernadette and 2000’s Merriment, a collaboration with Georgia pals Kelly and Nikki Keneipp) were a return to form of sorts—witty, sharp, thought-provoking, titillating and comforting all at once. Recharged by his musical accomplishments and his ever-popular tours, Vic signed a one-off deal with New York label SpinArt in 2001 and released Left To His Own Devices, an assortment of doctored-up older recordings and several brand-new tracks—done almost entirely by himself. Compared to his two previous releases and this year’s Silver Lake, that album now seems to have been a purging process of sorts. Songs like “Deadline,” “Very Friendly Lighthouses,” and “I Thought You Were My Friend” positively reeked of panic, paranoia and betrayal, and though the music behind the tracks was as heart-rendingly fragile and beautiful as ever, the lyrics left behind a wash of sadness and melancholy. It was also defiant and optimistic, in places. Vic—to whom every album is a purging process of some sort—agrees that there’s a big difference between Devices and Silver Lake, but doesn’t spend much time overanalyzing. “People are makin’ a lot about the difference, but to me, Silver Lake was pretty organically done, and it felt pretty natural to me. Which was a lot different than my last record, which was done all on my own, I played everything.”
New West Senior VP Peter Jesperson, who’s renowned for—among other things—discovering, signing and baby-sitting legendary Minneapolis rockers The Replacements, readily admits that working with Vic had been a goal of his since he’d first heard the man’s music. “It was like being struck by lightning,” he enthused by phone from L.A. “I think a lot of people feel like that the first time they hear Vic—he’s so Goddamn original.” The co-founder of Twin/Tone Records—who now heads the A&R department at New West (Delbert McClinton, The Flatlanders, Tim Easton, etc.)—followed Chesnutt’s career, and eventually the two became chums. “I knew I’d love to work with the guy,” he says, “and I was determined that it was gonna happen sometime.” That sometime came in 2000, when Peter and New West President Cameron Strang met with the then between labels artist at his home in Georgia. “I’d told Cam that the number one thing I wanted to do (at New West) was to get on a plane and go down to Georgia and put some paper on the table between us and Vic Chesnutt.” After a brief spell of pondering, Chesnutt signed with New West in 2002, and Jesperson says watching the album come to life was an experience he’ll never forget. “It was fantastic, all the way around. (laughs) And as Vic said, it really was like going to band camp.”
Which brings us to the mighty cast of musical characters who played on, helped mold and inspired the powerful, emotional roller-coaster that is Silver Lake, the album. Chief co-conspirator/producer/engineer extraordinaire Mark Howard (Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, etc.), who runs Real Music Studios at The Paramour in Silver Lake, was a major factor in gathering the band of uber-talented sessionaires backing—nay, enforcing—Vic on his latest project. (T-Bone Burnett was orginally slated for production duties, but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts) Howard was responsible for bringing in such luminaries as bassist Daryl Johnson (The Nevilles, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, etc.), guitarist Doug Pettibone (Alejandro Escovedo, Jewel, Lucinda Williams), and drummer Mike Stinson (Christina Aguilera, Dwight Yoakam). Vic himself recommended keyboardist Patrick Warren (Michael Penn, Ted Hawkins, Tracy Chapman), who did much of the arranging and provided a veritable mini-orchestra of sounds on a good portion of the album. There were a few other helping hands (and voices, and advice-givers) on the project, as well, including drums and percussion courtesty of top-notch skinman Don Heffington (Bob Dylan, The Jayhawks, Lone Justice) former Iggy Pop bassist Hal Cragin and backing vocalist CC White on one track each, and Howard, Jesperson, and Vic’s wife Tina on various duties.
“Mark pretty much got the band together,” confirmed Chesnutt. “And I didn’t know who the hell he was! (New West President) Cameron Strang knew us, and he’d been going up to Mark’s studio to hear what I guess you’d call “the dailies,” these little listening parties they were having for Lucinda Williams’ new record (Her latest, World Without Tears, was also recorded by Howard at Silver Lake), so he went up there and saw the studio, heard what was going on, and saw the way Mark worked. He gave Mark a demo tape to see if he would be interested, and he was interested, so that’s how it worked out. So all these factors came into play to make this record.” Recorded in just fourteen days—the band and Howard would gather twice a day in the studio—the album has that nearly impossible-to-capture, in-the-moment feel, with very few vocal overdubs and nearly all of the music recorded live and on the spot. Every musician involved with the project agrees that Howard’s method of recording—mellow hours, the band and producer in one room, all the players gathered in a circle and facing each other—affected the recording with overwhelmingly positive results.
“Yeah, Cameron saw the way I worked,” recalled Howard by phone from Canada recently, where he’s ensconced in yet another studio. “He asked me if I wanted to work with Vic Chesnutt, and I was like, “Really!? I’ve always wanted to work with Vic!” Fresh from recording Williams’ new album, he eagerly dove into the recording of Silver Lake, gathering the musicians, recording two tracks a day—even mixing on the same day—and wrapped up the project in an amazing, if frantic, two weeks. “The way I work is, I work in pairs of three. We’ll do three takes only,” he stressed. “It’s just really to keep down the choices. And usually, if the band is well rehearsed—and everybody knows the arrangement, and the musicians are of that caliber—then once they know the arrangement, it’s just about performance. And to nail it, three takes is enough. And out of those, I always get one. You pick one, or you cut one together, and that’s the way Vic’s record was really made.”
A world-traveler, the Canadian-born Howard consciously wove some of his international influences into the fabric of the album; his natural love of rhythm and percussion adding spicy flavoring to Vic’s already other-worldly lyrics and melodies. “I’m also a drummer,” he said when asked about those vibes. “I’m very much into grooves and a lot of the drum sounds, and kind of trying to break new ground with that stuff, and treating drums. My whole thing is, I’m a manipulator, I like to take standard sounds and turn them into an interesting sound—one that you may never have heard before.” Working from home demos Chesnutt had recorded playing Omnichord, guitar, and keyboards (Howard says he was mightily impressed with those, but Vic just shrugged and told him, “Ah, they’re shee-it!”), the wily producer took advantage of the various influences each band member brought in to help mold and shape the 11 disparate songs that make up Silver Lake (See sidebar for Vic and Mark’s comments on the songs).
Howard chuckled as he recounted how he revealed a few of his studio tricks to Vic after the sessions were over: “Toward the end of the record, I asked him if he wanted to see what he’d been playing through. Because he had no idea what amp he was using or anything. All the amps were all isolated in the side libararies and the side rooms off the main ballroom. The way I record is, I keep everybody in a room with the drummer, everybody wears headphones, but I isolate the guitar amps and the bass amp. So that you’re getting the vibe, you’re there with the drummer—there were two drummers most of the time—and so it was kind of like a big group of people playing live, it was great! At the end of the record, I said, ‘Vic, come and have a look and see what you’re playing through.’ So he wheels up in his chair, and I open the door. And I expose his amp, and go, ‘Here’s your big guitar sounds, from “2nd Floor,” that screaming!’ And he was expecting to see like, a Marshall stack there, and I pulled out this little tiny old Gretsch amp, one knob, you turn it on, and it’s the size of—bigger than a loaf of bread—a little cube, a little square. And that was his sound. He couldn’t believe it. ‘That big sound comin’ outta that little tiny speaker?’ (laughs) And I was like, ‘That’s my secret weapon there.”
Chesnutt, in his own stubborn way, seems to realize that this album is a definite high point in his already illustrious career. There was a reason, he says, why he took the time to painstakingly record in the liner notes everything each musician did, or thought of, or contributed to, on the record. “When I first got there,” he recalled, “Mark Howard gave me this little notebook, and a pen. He said, here’s in case you’ve got any notes. Then after the first song, I was looking at that notebook going, why the fuck (did) he give me a notebook? This is ridiculous! You know, I already wrote the fuckin’ song, I ain’t got no time to write any songs while I’m in here. You know, ‘cause to me, a notebook equates writin’ poetry or writin’ songs or something. And then after, when I started recording the second song that evening, it just occured to me, when somebody said something or I looked around at what everybody was playing, and I thought, ‘Hey! This is what I’m going to use this notebook for! I’m gonna write down what everybody played on it!’ And I think it’s going to be important for posterity, who suggested what, you know? What kind of arrangements. Because I’d already, after day one, felt pretty close to this band.”
Chesnutt kicked off a national (and then an international) tour on April 4th, and though he wasn’t able to gather the studio band for a live run, he says he’s thrilled just to be able to play the new tunes live in front of his loyal audiences, and to be working with some old Athens buddies he’s affectionately dubbed “The Amorphous Strums” (Vic on guitar, vocals, and Omnichord, Curtiss Pernice, guitar, Omnichord, and backing vocals, Sam Mixon, bass, guitar, Omnichord, and backing vocals, and Ballard Lesemann, drums and backing vocals). “Well, I’d known ‘em for years and years,” he says, “but this kind of happened through Mark Nevers, up in Nashville, who plays guitar with Lambchop. He’d been playing with these guys in his band called Cyod, and knew that they were great multiinstrumentalists. And he was like, they’re great! They live right there in Athens. We’ve got this ‘everybody sings’ kind of ethic. And Curtiss and Ballard were roommates for a long time, so they all know each other really well.” Jesperson agrees that Vic couldn’t have found a more sympatico backing band for his current tour. “Wait until you see the show; it’s just incredible what they do with the songs. This band Vic’s put together is really a great one, and they’re really hitting their stride now.”
I tell Vic I’m thinking about calling this article “Short Chore, Great Reward,” after a line in the song “2nd Floor” on Silver Lake, and in reference to the almost inhuman pace the album was recorded at. He gets quite excited when I ask if he thinks it’s a good idea, and speaks at length about his inspiration for that track. “Certainly. Absolutely. And you know, that line has a lot of meaning to me. When I was writing this song, it had a lot to do with democracy—and especially at this time, when most people are completely in the dark about what goes on in this country, politically speaking. Or the direction the country has been going in since the 1970’s. It’s hard work, it’s a chore, all citizens have a responsibility. And it’s a chore, you know, to learn the facts and do all that. To learn what’s going on. And when most Americans don’t—they don’t know what’s going on, and they don’t care—and they just kind of join a team. Whatever team they feel they want to be a part of, they join and they blindly follow. So yeah, short chore, great reward is a sort of mantra for democratic citizens, in a way, too.”
When I ask him what his final analysis of Silver Lake is, and if he’s genuinely happy these days, he’s quiet for a long moment before answering: “Well, first of all, it was a group effort here,” he says, “Mark, and my wife Tina, and Peter Jesperson certainly had an effect, and it seemed to me important to portray that in the liner notes. The whole thing, to me, this whole package is all part of it, and the name of it, Silver Lake, where we recorded it. I told Peter it was kind of like calling the album Abbey Road when The Beatles recorded it at Abbey Road. So that was kind of how it is. As for me, well, I can’t say what’s all in the future. I’d say I’m in a good state of mind right now, and yeah, I feel pretty solid.”
Vic Chesnutt And The Amorphous Strums play The Turf Club on Monday, April 21. Openers are Eastmountainsouth and M. Ward, a Foundation/SPMC presentation. Music starts at 8 p.m., 21+, Tickets are $10. Call The Turf for more info at 651-647-0486.