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Interview: Vic Chesnutt

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge to interview Vic Chesnutt. True, his newest album Dark Developments is one of my favorite records of the year, but some of my friends warned me that Chesnutt might be a little ornery. My only experience with the man was a live show where he opened his set shouting, “Cocks! Cocks!” at the audience.

On his latest album, Chesnutt paired with fellow Athens rockers Elf Power to create a work that is both moving and funny. After 20 years of music, Chesnutt should be better known, but the small crowd at the Doug Fir would still be treated to an intimate, crackling show.

I found Chesnutt to be warm, intelligent and funny. I almost burst out laughing three times during the interview. See for yourself and pick up Dark Developments. It’s awesome.

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Welcome to Portland, Vic.

It’s good to be here.

You’ve been here before, I guess.

Yep.

How has the tour been going for you, so far?

Great!

Is this the beginning, middle?

This is over halfway. We’re headed home, kinda. Seattle, I guess. Then we turn the corner and start heading south.

Can you explain to me how the night works?

Elf Power plays first and then I join them and we do the album that we recorded together.

Are you going to be doing any of your own material besides the album?

Yeah, maybe a few things.

Let’s talk about collaboration. You seem to do a lot more a lot more collaboration than the normal artist. You did an album with Lambchop, you are now working with Elf Power, you have collaborated with Michael Stipe. What is it that collaboration does for you?

Well, writing songs is very lonely. It’s a lonely thing I do one my own in my little corner. It’s fun to get some input on other people on how to play. It’s very personal reasons I collaborate. Beyond rock ‘n’ roll reasons or musical reasons mostly. All of my collaborations have been for personal reasons. Widespread Panic, I made Brute for personal reasons because they were friendly dudes. Lambchop I did because I love those guys as friends. The Montreal guys, I just did a Silver Mount Zion collaboration and Guy from Fugazi because I love those guys.

That’s a pretty wide palette of people that you work with. A lot of different styles.

Yeah. I get lonely.

How did this one with Elf Power come about?

Well, I’m not exactly sure how we decided to it. I know Andrew (Rieger) asked me to sing on one of their records awhile back. Then, somehow we got asked to do a TV show for Turner Broadcasting. They were going to do it and I was going to do it, so we decided to do it together. It seemed good. Everybody in Athens was like, “Oh, y’all gotta make a record together.” So, we did.

You grew up in Athens?

Well, I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there mostly ever since.

I’ve never been there, but it seems like one of those spots like Portland and Boulder and Austin where it seems like creative people like to congregate and stay.

It’s been that way in Athens since the ’60s. Bohemians in the South would come there to go to college and they found a bunch of like-minded people that they could paaaaaaaaaaaaarty with.

Is partying still a big part of your life?

No. I never party.

So what is the draw for you?

Well, I lived there so long that. You know, I tried to move away. I moved to LA in 1990. I loved it but the traffic got crazy. You can live in Athens and go from one side of town to the other in five minutes. Nice! Plus, there are cool people there that you can rock ‘n’ roll with and there’s clubs you can play in and there’s food to eat. So, it’s a cool town.

The guy who wrote the review of your album for my site focused on the idea…

I started to read that, but I don’t read reviews. I tried to read it, but then the first word scared me.

What was the first word?

I don’t remember. I couldn’t read it. It scared me.

His thesis is that, as a musician you are a torchbearer in this line of what Greil Marcus describes as the “Old, Weird America.” Taking music from the backcountry and fusing it with rock ‘n’ roll. Would you say that is why you do music?

Yes. I am a folk musician. My granddad did it, my mom did it, my granny did it, my grandma did it.

And they are all from Georgia?

Well, they are from Florida and Georgia. My granddad was born in Georgia. He was taught how to play guitar by his mom. He taught me how to play guitar. He wrote songs. When I was a little kid, I wanted to write songs just like he did. It’s something we did for fun. We had hopes that someday that someone would record it and we’d get rich.

Wasn’t there more than money that compelled you to play?

When I was kid I didn’t think much about that. But anyway, I’m a folk musician. But I rebelled against the romantic notions of my mom and granddad and wanted to write cynical songs that more reflected my dark vision of the South and the world.

I’m glad you brought that up because I wanted to talk to you about your vision of America at this time. I don’t want to focus on the election, though I think it’s an important election. What are your thoughts on America in general? You said “dark.”

Well, that’s my worldview. Some people say I have a dark and cynical worldview just because it seems sad or something. It is cynical; it’s not a romantic view. I am very much a doubter on everything. Also, I see things wrong with America and I like to see them.

What are they?

Well, there’s a million things wrong with America. Racism, for one. I come from the South. It’s a violent place. Deep, dark, violent place. And Christianity pisses me off. It makes me sick to my stomach every time that it occurs to me that everybody in power believes in Santa Claus.

Christianity or fundamentalist Christianity?

I’m cool with cool Christians.

What is a cool Christian?

Someone who thinks that maybe they’d better work on themselves instead of me. I like that. I can understand that. Using the Bible and Jesus as a way of purifying your own bullshit.

Isn’t the Bible so entrenched in American folk music? Not necessarily the background in belief, but referencing it.

Yeah, I reference it all the time. I love the Bible; it’s a beautiful thing. It’s the oldest book we got. It’s the oldest book we got. It’s the whole basis of Western civilization. There are so many archetypal occurrences in there that you have to reference, just as literary touchstones. You have to and it’s beautiful thing.

Back to folk music, it seems as if it’s born from emotion. Either misery or pure joy. The reason, I think, folk music was initially written was to express hardship or…

I don’t know about that. Not at all. I think people played folk music just because it’s fun. I think they were particularly like, “Oh, we’re starving to death. Let’s get the banjos out and let’s play a little thing here.” No, I think it was, “Let’s have a little nip of the corn and let’s bang it out and we can dance around.” I think that’s more what folk music is about. It just so happens that there’s a bunch of songs that deal with sadness and the plight and all that and heartbreak and all that shit, there’s equally as many goofy ass songs just about drinking corn liquor and dancing around.

Which is a release, though.

Oh, it is. It’s total. You work in the field all day and at night you have a nip of corn liquor and you play the banjos and you dance around and then somebody is going to get.pregnaaaaant.

Wouldn’t you say that’s putting on blinders to hardship?

No, not blinders at all. It’s not blinders, it’s kind of like a vitamin.

How has folk music affected you?

Well, I would be a different person if my granddad didn’t pull out that guitar when I was a baby. My mom said that when I was a little baby and he pulled that damned guitar out I was crawling over to his feet and transfixed. I remember that so well, him pulling out that guitar and I wanted to hear him sing it. I wanted him to sing his songs that wrote, that I thought were incredible.

So he played mostly his own stuff?

No, he wrote songs but he also played all the country hits of the day. I don’t know how many I heard “San Antonio Rose.” I fucking heard “San Antonio Rose” so many fucking times. Ten billion times.

Do you ever play it?

No, that’s out of my league, man. It’s a great song, though. Aw yeah, that’s a great song. Great song. One thing I learned early on is that it was a vitamin. I could go, “My fucking mom sucks. She sucks, man. I’m going to write a song in the privacy of my own room and it’s going to be, ‘Mom, You Suck.'” It felt good. It was a vitamin and I continue doing that to this day. It’s not blinders; it’s fake, yes, but it is empowering. It’s all about ego and stuff like that.

So how does live performance factor into the ego then?

I never would have played my songs on stage, ever. It never would have occurred to me except people said, “You gotta play these songs on stage.” Then I was like, “Oh! You mean these little projects I’ve been working on all these years, people would actually want to hear them?” I thought they were for my own benefit about how much you suck. It was making me good. Then, I played some songs at a party one night in Athens and people said, “Look, you gotta play. We’re getting you a gig.”

Now, Michael Stipe was instrumental. He produced your first couple of albums.

He saw me play when I first started playing out. He was always very encouraging. Even at my earliest fucking gigs, he was there and he would say things like, “Wow, you’re good.” And I would say things like, “No, I suck. Oh noooooo, I suuuuuck.” And he would say things like, “No, Vic, just say, “Thank you.'” I would say, “Okay. Thank you.”

Well, you’ve put an album out every year or every other year since you’ve started.

No, well, maybe. My first record was recorded in 1988 and I’ve made 14 records.

So that was 20 years ago. So that’s almost every year or every other year. You’re prolific, so you obviously don’t suck.

I write a lot more songs than that. It’s the record biz that fucked me. I would have put out 40 records by now except they just can’t handle it.

You do have your own studio now.

Yeah, I do. I record stuff at home.

One thing people note about your music is your mordant sense of humor that you put into your lyrics. Would you agree that best way to have a negative worldview is by infusing gallows humor into whatever you do?

Well, I don’t know if it’s the best way. The Wasteland isn’t that funny, but it’s pretty awesome and dark. But to me, it was important for funny to be in there because if it’s not, it gets cheesy or something. I’ve said this before, but even when you’re hanging yourself, and you fart, you laugh. You know what I mean? You just can’t help it.

One last question. How did you get involved in Slingblade? I remember seeing you there and thinking, “How did Vic Chesnutt get in this movie?”

It’s really simple. Pete Sillen made a documentary about me in 1991.

Speed Racer?

Speed Racer. Billy Bob (Thornton) saw that movie and wrote a part for me in his movie.

Was it a good experience?

It was great. I wish I could do it again, though. I wish I had it to do over again because I really sucked.

I laughed.

I don’t know, for some reason Billy Bob wouldn’t give me any direction. He would call all the other guys over in a circle and give them direction and he would say, “No, you stay over there.” I was like (whining), “Come on, give me some direction.” So, I didn’t know what to do. Then, it was coming up time for my closeup, right? I was like, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll be the best actor ever; I’ll smoke a big, fat joint. Right? So I smoke a big, fat joint right before my close-up and then when I sat down in front of the camera, they got the lights on me and I had been studying my monologue so I was all ready to do it, and then Robert Duvall came and sat down on a seat like right here. Right where you are. Then I had to do my close-up and I was so paranoid and freaking out that I kinda just was like, “Uhbuluhbluh.”

Who was the guy that has a long monologue in the scene where you’re all playing music? He’s an older, heavier dude.

That’s Colonel Bruce Hampton. You gotta look him up. He’s a legend; a Georgia legend. You gotta look up Colonel Bruce.

I actually went through Georgia for the first time this past December. It is pretty interesting how varied it is. I went to Tybee Island on the way down and then up through Okefenokee on the way back.

Ooh nice. Black water. That is where some of my people are from. My granny was born in Waycross and we had our family reunions right there on the Okefenokee.

I wish you luck and I am excited to see the show tonight.

I hope you like it.

I love the album. It will probably be even better because it’s live.

It should be better because I’m so awesome live. (Laughs)

by David Harris

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