Interview: Eric Chenaux
I moved to the countryside of France which has been a very all encompassing change and I can really hear it in my music – I hear more space in it and a lot more humour.
Eric Chenaux has just released his new album Say Laura and it is a sublime collection of songs that demonstrate exactly why he is so highly regarded as an artist, as the ballads on the album will make you want to listen to again and again. Gavin Brown caught up with Eric for a wonderfully insightful chat to hear all about Say Laura, his musical career, upcoming UK tour, running his own label and how he came to go solo after years of playing in bands.
E&D: Your new album Say Laura has just come out. What has the reaction to this new record been like so far?
Eric: Well first of all there your friends, you know you start sending it them and that feedback is the stuff that really counts. I love the music my friends make and listen to a lot of music made by my friends so that is part of a conversation that is quite profound. Other than that, well, it seems to be finding its way into some ears that are enjoying it. I don’t know? What do you think?
E&D: I think it is an amazing piece of work! Now, Say Laura has been a few years in the making. How have you evolved as an artist in the time between your last album Slowly Paradise and now?
Eric: It is a particular time to ask such a question as it has been a rather exceptional time for all. I moved to the countryside of France which has been a very all encompassing change and I can really hear it in my music – I hear more space in it and a lot more humour. My guitar is acquiring quite a sense of humour but one that comes from the environment, the humour of a relationship with nature. Birds and horses do sound pretty damn hilarious.
E&D: What were the biggest influences on the songs on Say Laura?
Eric: There is the song ‘Laura’, which was written by David Raksin and Johnny Mercer in the forties and was the theme song for Otto Preminger’s film Laura. “She gave your very first kiss to you, that was Laura but she’s only a dream”. Beautiful lyrics and a wildly beautiful melody. The versions I love are by Frank Sinatra, Jeanne Lee, Charles Mingus, Tony Bennet, Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon. I also listened to Sun Ra’s The Night Of The Purple Moon a lot while writing this record. Something about the simplicity of the bass on that record and the space it gives for the mid-tempo tunes just kills me. Since I am in a bit of a list mode I will continue with other things that may have had seeped into the thinking about this material: Thelonious Monk, Asa Chang,Betty Carter, Bjork, Alvin Curran, Mouse On Mars, Ivor Cutler, Martin Arnold, King Sunny Ade, Linda Catlin Smith, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Flying Lizards, Erykah Badu, Mel Torme, Blue Gene Tyranny and Prince Buster,
E&D: You have done a video for the song ‘Say Laura’ in collaboration with Eric Cazdyn. Can you tell us about the video and how the visual elements fit with the song?
Eric: Well, it is a photographic documentation of me lip-syncing the song. So you see the gestures of the singer and such and also the face somewhat at rest while listening to the instrumental sections. There are a lot of other subtle ways that Eric Cazdyn used the form and material of the song to make decisions about how to work with montage, light, text, black screen etc.
E&D: Why do you think that you and Eric work so well together?
Eric: We are very very close friends. Very close. I care for him deeply. And working together is just another way of being together and thinking about stuff together. Our practices have similarities and differences. That is for sure. We started working together as I was going to tour Japan and Eric was going to be in Japan and we thought that if he made videos that he would have a reason to come on the tour. You know, regular ways decisions of this nature get made. We also share a very strong love for the cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. That is kind of where we started. And Eric at this time was developing his Blind-spot Machine which is a rig with four cameras at a 90 degree angle from each other all on one tripod that moves (often slowly) electronically. That machine is a real motherfucker. I could watch footage from that machine all day. I very much love the work Eric does on his own. I feel what we do together somewhat compromises that, but hey, voila collaboration!
E&D: Can you tell us a bit about the ‘3 Stars On Mountain Of Doom’ track that you realised last year and how that one came about?
Eric: I wrote it for Richard Youngs, to be a part of a very sweet compilation with many wonderful musicians, that was given to him for his birthday. The cd is great! Maybe one day the world at large will get to hear it. I don’t know. I really did not think that I could tackle one of his pieces or songs so I decided to musically reflect upon a record of his that I love called Three Handed Star. Mostly human voice and concertina. You know, I did it my way but with a lot of love for not only what he does, which I love, but also his practice, how he makes music, which I have a lot of respect for. That was quite a blast to do. And then Eric Cazdyn made a really great video, perhaps one of my favourites of his. Sweet times.
E&D: Have you got further plans for new music from The Draperies?
Eric: The Draperies is a life. Not always planned but always there. I love this band very much. Ryan Driver on synth and other stuff and Doug Tielli on trombone and sometimes some other stuff.
E&D: Can you tell us about your time in Toronto post-punk bands Phleg Camp and Lifelikeweeds and do you have fond memories of those days?
Eric: I sure do. It was a long time ago and I do not have a very strong memory. In fact I have huge blocks of time that I have no memory of. Phleg Camp was formed, more or less, when Sean Dean asked me to start a band. If he had not done that I am not sure I would have become a musician in the way that I am now. I was and still am very hermetic. He dragged me out into the world and for that I am forever grateful, and wow, what a rhythm section (Sean Dean on bass and Gavin Brown on drums)! I was very lucky to be able to play with them. I learned so much and you know, I still listen to that music from time to time. Some of it was kind of funky.
E&D: How did playing in those band shape you as a musician and the music you are making today?
Eric: I may have best answered this question already, so I will just continue that thought. Sean opened me up to a lot of new music, a lot of British music, like Cocteau Twins and Gang Of Four and stuff like that. And not only is that music still dear to me but the very practice of searching out things in strange corners was instilled in me at that time. Also, well, we toured a lot. I mean a lot. Donuts of the United States. And we were pretty young. So I developed quite an ease with touring and performing which I maintain. I mean, I certainly don’t have the same desire to leave my home, like I did then. It is not easy to leave where live. My life there is very fulfilling and rich, but I am pretty at ease moving around from time to time. We met so many amazing folks on those tours. A lot of young folks trying to do things with very little to no support. This was an amazing moment in American musical history; the hardcore/post-punk days of the 1980’s and early 90’s. Inspiring.
E&D: Did you find it difficult at all, when you went solo after playing in bands?
Eric: Good question. Yeah. It was rough. I had very little confidence and even less ability. I was mostly improvising. I played brutally quietly in rock clubs. Most of the time no-one really noticed that I had begun. When I started to bring songs into the improvisations things started to get a little easier. But it has taken me quite a while to feel stable and solid on stage. Now I am quite comfortable. Very comfortable in fact.
E&D: How has the experience of co-founding and running your own in label in Rat-drifting been?
Eric: It is a real pleasure. I love the music on Rat-drifitng very much and it speaks to the wonders of the music that is played in Toronto. There is really not a lot of genre splitting there, not anything like I experience here in France. Be-bop players playing with songwriters and composers playing banjos in folk bands etc etc. Toronto will also be my musical holy grail.
E&D: What have some of the highlights of the label been?
Eric: So many, and for different reasons. I don’t think I can name one.
E&D: Are you looking forward to your upcoming UK tour?
Eric: Oh very much. I am, for the most part, playing in places I have played before, with promoters I know and love and with other musicians I know and love. What better way to drift back into the social side of the world of music! And I miss performing concerts. I miss that a lot. There are things that happen live that will just never happen at home, and for good reason. A great bunch of listeners really change the environment where the music is coming from.
E&D: How do you think that the material from Say Laura will translate into a live environment?
Eric: Well, I always perform the music I am going to record quite a bit. The question is most often, how do I think that the live material with translate into a record, and then my favourite part of the practice is after the record. It has gone from live to record and in going back to live the material has taken such a beating I have such an intimate relationship with it that the music can really start live its own life and I can just step out of the way and just listen to it breath.
E&D: What is your first ever musical memory and did it shape you to the path you took as an artist at all?
Eric: I will pick one out of the hat. My folks had an alarm clock that had a radio in it and I would go into their room and flip around the stations and listen to music for hours. I was probably around 10 years old. And one day I heard Diana Ross’ ‘Upside Down’ and it floored me. Not knowing how things work I went back the next day at the same time hoping to hear it again. I did not hear it. So I sang it to myself for weeks before I realised that I could ask my mother to take me to a record shop at the mall and get it.I had listened and loved a lot of music before that but that song just killed me, and something about that love still sticks to me and I feel it very often when I hear something I love. It was like experiencing a sensation or emotion for the first time.
E&D: What have been the most memorable moments of your music career so far?
Eric: That’s impossible, and even if it weren’t I would probably not even remember. Things get into you and grow in you like weeds. They become a part of you, colonise you, alter you, change you, you become someone and something different. We are malleable and often much more than we think is possible. Music is one place of many where this can happen, this kind of alteration. It happens all the time and sometimes you might not even be aware of it at the moment. And it may even be more potent and psychedelic if you don’t know what is going on, if you can not put your finger on it, if you can not explain it away. Maybe I wish to be quiet about these things, let them live in me and not rope them into a narrative. That said, I saw Robert Ashley perform in Montreal some years ago and he performed a version of Love Is A Good Example. And well, that was unreal. A very complicated series of beautiful feelings.