Vic Chesnutt: Warm Heart, Dark Folk

[Ed. note: This interview was completed shortly before Vic Chesnutt passed away on December 25, 2009.  It subsequently ran in ALARM 37 as a tribute to a unique and prolific singer/songwriter.]

Vic Chesnutt: At The CutVic Chesnutt: At The Cut (Constellation, 9/21/09)

Vic Chesnutt: “Flirted With You All My Life”

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“I make films.  I’m no record producer, but I needed to bring these particular people together in this particular place.  I thought they might hit it off.  They hit it hard.  I thought it might get heavy.  It did.”

So says filmmaker Jem Cohen in the liner notes for Vic Chesnutt’s dusty 2007 masterpiece North Star Deserter. More than 20 years into Chesnutt’s recorded career, and with an impressive discography already 10 albums deep, North Star was a surprising, furtive burst of energy, bringing together some of the brightest lights that the underground music community had to offer.

At first, the idea might seem too crazy to work and too good to be true: combining the unearthly, slow-building machinations of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s avant-orchestral spin-off A Silver Mt. Zion with the precise, metallic guitar squall of Guy Picciotto — the oft-shirtless, wailing, and writhing co-frontman of Fugazi — to play the quirky, personal, and often darkly humorous songs of lauded Athens, Georgia-based singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Yes, it would take some kind of otherworldly cosmic force to get these people together at the same time.

In this case, that otherworldly cosmic force was Cohen, whose long-time friendships with and intense love and respect for the musicians involved led him to begin building what would become North Star Deserter.

“It was all Jem’s idea,” Chesnutt says. “I guess he didn’t like my last two records so much (Silver Lake and Ghetto Bells, both for New West). He told me he wanted me to make a good record again, so he set the whole thing up.”

Chesnutt has never been one to shy away from collaboration. He’s released records with groups as diverse as Athens-based jam band Widespread Panic, Nashville country-politan favorites Lambchop, jazz innovator Bill Frisell, and most recently, indie-folk collective Elf Power. As it turns out, the connections that were required to make Cohen’s vision coalesce were only separated by one or two degrees. And everybody already knew and had the utmost respect for Cohen, his whole-hearted approach, and the indelible thumbprint that he’s left on any project he’s touched.

“Collaborating is very fulfilling for me, just hearing what everyone comes up with. I realize I’m probably the only guy on Earth who’s worked with Widespread Panic and Guy from Fugazi. I feel very lucky that way.”

In his 1998 documentary Instrument, Cohen carefully and obsessively follows the trajectory of punk pioneers Fugazi from local DC hardcore punks to groundbreaking indie virtuosos of international acclaim. Cohen had formed a close bond with Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye, a friend since their high-school days, thus allowing him a unique perspective on the band and the ability to closely watch its members grow from sapling to oak.

Just a few years later, Cohen would become enamored with the musical/visual dichotomy of Montréal post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, even traveling with the band as a projectionist for some time. These connections, coupled with a resounding and long-standing respect for Vic Chesnutt and his music, led Cohen to begin mulling over the idea of getting everyone together to record an album together.

North Star was Jem’s brainchild,” says Ian Illavsky, founding member of A Silver Mt. Zion and co-owner of Montréal’s Constellation Records. “He’d been rabidly collecting and cataloguing Vic’s live bootleg recordings and going to his shows for years. He might know Vic’s songs better than Vic does.”

Fortunately for Cohen, his would-be cohorts had a long history together as well.

“Every time Fugazi was in Athens, we’d hang out with Vic,” Picciotto says. “He first opened for Fugazi at the 40 Watt Club in Athens back in 1988. I feel a real kinship with him. He has such a wide musical heart, and loves and appreciates so much stuff.”

“Vic Chesnutt was one of the first musicians that [Constellation co-owner] Don Wilkie and I bonded over in college,” Illavsky says. “It was like a dream come true seeing that whole project come together.”

Chesnutt says that he sent Cohen 30 or more new songs to choose from for the project. From those, he picked which songs he wanted and snuck in a few old favorites that had yet to be officially recorded. “He decided what order they should go in and already had all the players in mind,” Chesnutt says. “It was like he was directing a movie.”

“Jem had a real 1950s-producer type of role,” Picciotto says. “He was coming from an aesthetic perspective rather than a musical one and structured everything very specifically.”

The culmination of that meeting of minds in Montréal resulted in an album both surreal in its subject matter and epically cinematic in its scope and execution. North Star Deserter gave Chesnutt’s songs a cohesive mood and essence that had never before been fully realized on record.

The ominous and dark mood always just below the surface in Chesnutt’s songwriting was here explosively brought to the fray and cast in a sharply focused light, and the sonic peaks and valleys and cohesive narrative flow of the album were more properly used to the advantage of his songs than ever before. With the North Star sessions, mutual fans became mutual friends, and open appreciation of craft morphed itself into something deeper.

“It became a big mutual love-fest in studio,” Illavsky says. “It was refreshing to graft onto a musician we all have such intense respect for. Vic is a charming and enthusiastic guy, and it’s hard to imagine an easier person to work with.”

Fortunately, Chesnutt has always been utterly flexible in his approach to songwriting as well. This, coupled with his ongoing interest in collaborative projects, led to an open interpretation of the songs in studio.

“Vic is an incredible, hardworking motherfucker in the studio,” Picciotto says. “He’s incredibly generous about letting people come forward and hearing what they come up with. His songs are extremely versatile; you can play them as slow, sad ballads or fast, epic punk songs — and they sound great no matter what.”

“His songs are extremely versatile; you can play them as slow, sad ballads or fast, epic punk songs — and they sound great no matter what.”

Chesnutt says, ever humble, “Collaborating is very fulfilling for me, just hearing what everyone comes up with. I realize I’m probably the only guy on Earth who’s worked with Widespread Panic and Guy from Fugazi. I feel very lucky that way.”

The band toured Europe together twice in support of the record, beginning at the 2007 Vienna Film Festival, where the band scored Jem Cohen’s short film Empires of Tin live, an event that came together after their in-studio successes. A US tour never fully materialized, but throughout the band’s travels in Europe, a strengthened compatibility and friendship amongst the musicians developed, along with a heightened ability to read each other in a specific, symbiotic way that can only come from weeks spent playing shows on the road.

Upon returning stateside, Chesnutt set out on a lengthy tour with the Modern LoversJonathan Richman (their own collaboration, Skitter On Takeoff, was released in October of 2009 on Vapor Records) as well as a tour with Elf Power, his co-conspirators on the 2008 album Dark Developments.

But with the rare magic captured on North Star Deserter, it was a no-brainer that those involved — now fully comfortable with each other after their time spent touring France and Europe — would head back into the studio at some point. To Chesnutt, it seemed that now was a great time to see those familiar faces again.

“Vic was writing new material right up until the session,” Picciotto says. “He came in, played a ton of songs, and we all listened and hand-picked which ones we thought would be the best to focus on. Vic is like a faucet; you turn him on and all this amazing shit comes out. The variety of kinds of songs and sounds he comes up with is incredible.”

Initially, Chesnutt had intended to make a track-for-track recreation of North Star Deserter. But when he showed up at the studio, his collaborators had other ideas. “Everybody told me I was insane,” he says. “So I let it go and we just started playing.”

The renewed camaraderie from the road resulted in a much freer, more open discourse in the studio, giving their new record, At the Cut, a distinctive feeling all its own, only vaguely reminiscent of its predecessor. The mood is intense but looser, more comfortable and lived in, and more varied stylistically. “The new record is different in that Jem wasn’t in charge; it was a real collective, group process,” Chesnutt says. “After being out on tour, we knew what each other did. We’d all found our spot in the army and knew what our jobs were. It felt like a real team.”

At its core, the initial, strong mutual admiration that made North Star Deserter such a surprise treat is palpable, if even stronger, around every turned phrase and tempo shift on At the Cut. But Cohen’s influence is not entirely absent. During the sessions, he was on hand as a producer, and he helped create the artwork for the album. Picciotto says, “This time around, the engineers, producers, and really whoever was in the room at the time had a hand in what we came up with. Jem was very much involved this time around, and his presence is strong, but this is a band-produced album at heart.”

The relaxed atmosphere and open discussion in the studio led to numerous happy accidents along the way. Case in point: the track “Concord Country Jubilee” is a song that Chesnutt wrote in 1985 but never recorded. It randomly came back to him in the studio and ended up on the album.

“Everybody was doing experimental things,” he says. “Every song was a shocker. We’d go back and listen to what we’d just recorded and come out saying, ‘Whoa! How did that happen?’ Everybody was very vocal and participated a great deal in arrangements and ideas on how to approach each song. Even things like tempo, beat, who plays what, overdubs, and all that was up for discussion.”

With the joyous reunion of At the Cut recorded, pressed, and in stores, that ol’ road bug has begun to itch yet again. “This is a crazy band; there are all kinds of wild dynamics live,” Chesnutt says. “I can’t wait to get back out on the road with these guys and gals. The live show is like riding on a rocket.”

Picciotto hasn’t toured the US since his swansong run with Fugazi back in 2002. “We’ve all learned each other by playing together live,” he says. “That’s the same way we did it with Fugazi. I was used to touring six months out of the year for many years, and when it stopped, it was like getting the bends. I found myself wondering, ‘Hey, shouldn’t I be jumping up and down for two hours on the other side of the Earth right now?’ I’m chomping at the bit to get out there and play again. I feel like that’s what I was meant to do, and I’m very happy we’re doing this again.”

If the exceptional growth among these players captured on At the Cut was the result of their last bout of touring together, one can’t help but wonder what the future holds for this evolving band of musician’s musicians.

“I don’t really feel yet like this is my band,” Chesnutt says. “But sometimes, on accident, I catch myself saying out loud, ‘Holy crap! I’m in a band with Guy Picciotto from Fugazi!’ Collaborating with other musicians is very fulfilling, and each project is a brand new experience. It keeps things interesting. But I’ve been on tour with these people, and we’ve become like a real family band. Considering everything that’s happened since the last time we were all on the road together, this tour will be like the World Series of tours.”

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