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Vic Chesnutt and Elf Power will visit the Bowery Ballroom on Friday, January 23rd. Tickets are now onsale.
“I sucked [in Sling Blade]. I fucking sucked.”
Vic Chesnutt’s signature cinematic moment is easy to pinpoint: when the wheelchair-bound singer-songwriter (both on-screen and off following a car wreck when he was 18) gets rammed into a closed front door by Doyle Hargraves, played by a viciously hatless Dwight Yoakum, in Billy Bob Thornton’s Oscar-winning Sling Blade.
But the longtime Athens, Georgia resident makes his living creating sound, not pictures. And after commencing a recording career with two albums as spare and sparse as they come — 1990’s Little (produced and prodded by R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe) and 1991’s West of Rome (which we cannot recommend enough) — the order of Chesnutt’s more recent work is a little more involved.
For Sweet Relief II, a 1996 tribute album, Chesnutt’s songs were covered (with varying degrees of success) by the disparate likes of Madonna, Sparklehorse, Smashing Pumpkins and Hootie and the Blowfish. And for albums since he’s been backed by both Lambchop and Widespread Panic. Chesnutt’s latest, the not-as-dour-as-the-title-suggests Dark Developments (out this week), finds him fronting Elf Power, yet another northwest Georgia collective.
To celebrate we offer an exclusive MP3 of “Little Fucker,” a song inspired by Chesnutt’s 2006 tour as part of the Undertow Orchestra with American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel, Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan and Centro-matic’s Will Johnson. — Rob Trucks
Vic Chesnutt and Elf Power, “And How” (MP3)
Vic Chesnutt and Elf Power, “Teddy Bear” (MP3)
Vic, tell me something you’ve never ever done before in your life.
Well, I’ve never gone back in time.
Tell me something that you’ve done once and one time only.
Well, I took acid in Disneyland.
Okay. The name of a book that you’ve read at least twice.
Kafka Diaries, I guess.
You sound disappointed with your answer.
Well, I don’t really read that many twice so, you know, I was trying to think of … Most of the things I’ve read a lot, like anthologies and shit, I probably didn’t read back to back twice. It’s a tricky fucking question for me.
Well, it’s a tricky fucking question for a lot of people, but that’s a good answer. The name of a movie you’ve seen at least three times.
I know I’ve seen Wizard of Oz at least three times.
Have you seen Sling Blade three times?
No. I’ve only seen it once.
Really? It seems like you would’ve been back at least once.
I can’t watch that fucking movie. No way.
If you weren’t in the movie could you watch it again?
Oh yeah. I’d love it. If I wasn’t in it, it’d be great because I thought it was a great movie.
So it’s a self-conscious thing. It’s just a matter of you being in it.
I sucked. I fucking sucked.
(laughs) I thought you were pretty good.
Thank you. Thank you, but everything about it … I don’t know.
Are you the same way about listening to your own music? Like if you go to a party and one of your records is playing, do you have to either leave or go to another room?
Well, I’ll be bummed out, but I won’t, you know, make a show of it or anything. I’ll try to stick it out. If it’s just five of us, then no, I’m taking that motherfucker off, you know. For sure. Or if it’s a big party, you know. Whatever.
You’d have to spend the whole party trying not to look at people to see if they were listening or not, and if they were what they thought of it.
What happens at a party when your record is on is nobody’s paying any attention because, you know, they’re talking at the party. So it’s a double whammy.
Your bio notes that shortly after seeing Public Image and the car crash you were writing what you call “vacuous pop songs.” Then pretty soon after shoplifting the Norton Anthology and reading Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger your songs “take on an adult form.” Is literature the trigger that causes the change in your songwriting?
Before I broke my neck, I couldn’t read very well. I just wasn’t a good reader. I was too fidgety or something, right? So after I broke my neck I found a new kind of a stillness, you know, out of necessity because I fucking broke my fucking neck, you know. And I’m fucking sitting there. So anyway, I just started reading for pleasure instead of what they made me read. I mean, I read a couple of Beatle books, you know, and, you know, some magazines. I read a bunch of magazines, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones and shit like that. But, you know, I wasn’t reading novels or poetry, right? But what I found when I fucking started reading was that all of a sudden I thought, “Oh my God, what I’ve been thinking about, these kinds of ideas, my songs, what I’ve been thinking about, I’m in the right direction. I’m headed in the right direction here. Holy crap! Holy crap!” And so instead of kind of just floundering, not knowing what I was fucking doing before, I suddenly realized, “Oh, I’m headed in the right direction. Yeah, buddy. These words mean something, you know, so it’s happening. It’s happening.”
Do you remember the first song that you wrote where you felt like you were headed in the right direction?
Well yes, of course. That’s well-documented.
Tell me the story.
“Isodora Duncan.” It’s on my first album [Little]. I wrote it when I was like 19 or something, and yeah, that was the breakthrough song.
When you put the pen down after writing those lyrics, did you know immediately?
What happened was, I was still living in Pike County [Georgia] then, right? And I had just broken my neck and I’m just feeling, “How am I going to get around in the world?” And so I was going to drive up by myself, from Pike County, the three hours to Athens and see a band. And I stopped by the record store, which was about 20 miles from my house, 30 miles from my house, because I lived out in the fucking country, right? And one of my cohorts, Todd McBride, was working there. Later we would have a band called the La-Di-Das together, and then later than that he had a band called Dashboard Saviors. But he was working at this record store then and he told me, “Vic, you ought to write a song with this line in it: ‘I dreamed I was dancing with Isadora Duncan.”’ And I thought, “Wow, that’s a cool idea,” because, you know, I loved Isadora Duncan. She was like a bohemian icon, you know what I mean? A kind of lefty, you know, goddess. And so I was way into her. She was a hippie queen. And so on the way to Athens, on that drive up there, I wrote the words to “Isadora Duncan” in my head. And as I making that drive and writing that song, I was thinking to myself, “Oh shit, you know, I’m moving on. I’m not a kid anymore. I am a shore nuff, wild and wooly bohemian, you know, young dude. I’m a young dude. I’m a young dude, angry young man loose on the world.” And that was the moment right there.
I believe I would’ve been nervous as hell until I’d found a pen and a piece of paper and a place to pull over.
No, no, I just kept it in my head. You know, I worked on it all the way up there, and when I got there I wrote it down in my notebook. I remember sitting down. You know, pulled up in the parking spot, handicapped parking spot, and I got my notebook out and wrote it all down with a pencil.
That was 1984, ’83, ’84.
What’s your relationship with Athens now? It’s pretty well-known area for what used to be a small college town. It’s not anywhere as small as it was 25 years ago.
No, it’s five times bigger than it was then. Five times as many people live here as when I moved here.
Michael Stipe once called you “an acerbic reporter on the events of the town.” But that’s not your role anymore.
Absolutely not. I don’t have nothing to do with Athens anymore. I live here, but I’ve not been a part of the like scene, like I used to be in the ’80s, since 1990. I moved to L.A. for a year. I lived in Venice Beach for a long time, you know, and when I moved back nothing was the same. I was married to Tina, and I had my career. I was on tour all the time. And I just, you know, was out of the scene, out of the loop, and I never got back into it. Through strange circles is how I connect in Athens now. Just these weird, you know, kind of acquaintances, you know what I mean? I haven’t been to a party fucking in Athens since 1989.
But people still associate you with Athens.
Yeah. I still live here and I love it. I still gain a lot of inspiration from it, and you know I still play here.
The new record [Dark Developments] is with Elf Power, and of course they’re in Athens too.
Theyr’e icons here, you know. Much more a part of the scene than I have been since 1990.
Does that have to do with age or is it something else?
Well, it has to do with everything. I mean, people are complex and I’m a very complex person. My personality is a complex thing, you know. The reason I … You know, everything changed after I got married. Before that I was on the town. In the ’80s I was on the town every night. I was the last one, you know, at daybreak … I was the one going to bed then. I shut the town down. And I knew everybody. There was only 300 cool people here then.
How many cool people are in Athens now?
Well, I don’t know. There’s probably 30,000 cool people here now. I don’t know because I don’t really have that much to do with it.
When you do leave the house, like when you go to the grocery store or some place, are you recognized?
Some people know who I am, sure. I mean, I get recognized in any town. If I go to Whole Foods in any fucking town, people know who the fuck I am at Whole Foods, you know what I’m saying? And the record store. At the coffee shop, they all fucking might know who I am.
So does that mean that Whole Foods and record stores are comfortable places or are those places you avoid because people know who you are and you don’t want to be recognized?
No, no. I’m fine with that. I’m happy. I’m glad people know who I am. I mean, I don’t want to be fucking Kurt Cobain where I go outside and people cut my hair off, you know. Or even Michael Stipe where people are camped out in front of my house burning candles and singing and that kind of shit.
Do you still have the longtime fans who request Little and West of Rome when you play?
Yeah, you know. Little and West of Rome, those two, are the most pure. Because I hadn’t ever traveled much then. West of Rome, I wrote a lot of those songs in California so it’s kind of getting twisted by then. Little, that’s just pure, strange little Vic. Pike County. Broke his neck and now is taking LSD and writing songs in Athens and hanging out with poets and painters and mystics and punk rockers.
And purity not only in the songwriting, but in the recording process as well. For a lot of those songs it’s just you and your guitar.
It’s just me singing, you know. And it’s just like this kind of … very naive. Yeah. Very naïve kind of worldview, or whatever.
How do you feel playing songs off those two albums? Do you recognize yourself in those songs or do they feel like they belong to somebody else since they were written so long ago?
No, I still feel them. I am a different person now, very different person. I’m older. You know, shit. I’m much older. God.
You and me both, buddy.
Well, everybody gets that way. And getting older’s not a shame, it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle, you know. I’m still on a quest. I mean, I still am on a quest. I think my best work is ahead of me. And I really do think my best days are ahead of me.
Do you still have songwriting moments like you did with “Isadora Duncan”? Moments where you put the pen down and think, “Man, I did good this time”?
Yeah, it happens all the time. It just happened a couple of days ago.
And the name of that song that won’t be released for two or three years …
Yeah, maybe it won’t be. See? That’s what I’m getting at. That’s what I’m getting at. It happens all the time and sometimes I’m a little hasty.
Like maybe you like it more than you should?
Yeah. Like maybe it sucks. Maybe it is a stinker. But I am jazzed and I think this changes everything. “Holy fuck, people! Look out, man! This is a new one, man! The world is fucking not ready for this shit. This is too good. This one’s going to blow ya’ll’s fucking minds!” Then it’s like, “Oh, this is stu-pid.”
Well, tell me the name of the song, so a couple of years from now we’ll be able to tell whether you were right or wrong.
The last one was this song called “A Shuddery Thought.”
What song off of Dark Developments gave you that feeling?
Well, several of these songs are fucking revelations, man. Complete, man. It’s crazy. I mean, the first song, “Mystery,” was a fucking revelation. That song was so heavy when it came to me. God, it brought tears to my eyes. It was just like a manifesto.
You said “when it came” to you.
When I wrote it.
Right. But the phrase “when it came to me” almost sounds makes it sound like one of those quickly written gifts where your body’s basically a vessel for the song to pass through. Did you have to work a long time on that one to get it right?
Well, I mean, I tweaked on it for a while, but the initial inspiration came to me, you know, very quickly. You know, the first draft was immediate. Second draft a day or two. Third draft a week, you know. It probably only took three or four drafts until it was fucking perfect, you know. But the initial idea was immediate. The whole song structure, the lyrics. But I don’t look at it like I’m a vessel and it comes through, because I look at it more like kind of a net through the universe. Fucking snag it. I’m fucking actively fucking trying to get it, you know. Even it’s just, like, a kind of trotline. It’s just my biology’s got some hooks in the fucking line and I’m of the kind of nature to know that, and when I feel that tingle, when I feel that little tug, I’m snatching. You know what I’m saying?
Yeah. That’s a wonderful way to describe it. You know, the people who work hard tend to be luckier than the people who don’t work hard. Does that make sense?
Yeah, well, you know, the way I see it is the more in shape you are, the more I do it, the more sensitive I am to know when the tug is there, you know what I’m saying?
And I’ve been fucking, you know … I’m a better fisherman the more I do it, you know.
How quick was the process for “Little Fucker”?
That was immediate. That song was immediate. Immediate. And it was a revelation too. You know, I was doing this thing with the Undertow Orchestra, right? And so we toured in the States, and I love all those fucking guys. Mark Eitzel, I’ve been a fan of for years. The only guy I ever fucking like followed around like the Grateful Dead, you know. I did that years ago because fucking I love him. One of the greatest songwriters ever. And, of course, a performer, you know, unparalled. And David Bazan, you know, is a great fucking songwriter. His songs are beautiful and heavy and I love it. Will Johnson from Centro-matic.
Anyway, so then we went to Europe and we toured over there. And I love these guys, right? But when we were over there, the last night of the tour in Europe, it became clear that we weren’t going to do this Undertow Orchestra anymore. I realized, after a great amount of soul searching, that this management company that they were with was not the answer I needed for my career. And so I was bummed out because I was convinced that it was the exact answer I needed for my career, and then I realized, not through anything that had to do with the Undertow Orchestra, but I just realized that it wasn’t the magic pill that I thought it was.
And so I came home from that tour, flew home, you know, from Europe so depressed, man. I was so depressed, as soon as I got home to my house I took out my guitar and I wrote the song “Little Fucker.” Because that’s what those guys always called me, “little fucker.” Because when they were always helping me into the cab of the van — they had to pick me up and put me in there — I’d always squeal, and they would always say, “You little fucker,” because it would scare them every time. Every time. I would scare them every time. And so they called me “the little fucker.” And so when I got home and I was so depressed I wrote this song about me and what a prick I am that I can’t keep up with all these fucking great dudes, you know. You know, that I’m going to miss them, and they should just leave me. The song is, you know, leave me “‘to dry up in the sun.'”
I know that any time you step into a recording studio it gets to be a collaborative process. Whether it’s the producer and the engineer or other musicians, you’re working with other people. Even Little and West of Rome were, in a sense, collaborative because as much as they seem like it’s you by yourself obviously there’s somebody else working the tape machine.
Yeah, and on Little, you know, Michael [Stipe] collaborated a lot with me. He’s the one who was like, “Hey, you need to put keyboard on this song. I like the way you play keyboard. You need to play keyboard, and you need to play keyboard through this tiny little amp so it sounds cool.” And he was like, “You need to get my sister to sing on this song.”
So Michael contributed more as a producer than he would have us believe. [In interviews, Stipe has consistently played down his contributions].
Well Little, he did a lot with it.
But using the more traditional definition, you’ve collaborated with Widespread Panic, with Lambchop and now with Elf Power. What do you get out of these joint projects?
Well, with Elf Power, you know, it’s a chance to play dress-up in a way. I get to join in somebody else’s parade. It’s very exciting. I can put on their garb. And I think about the songs that, you know, I can bring to this parade that we can all have fun and do, you know, and they could really get behind. I didn’t bring them some … You know, I really thought about it. I’ve got a lot of fucking songs, man. I’m loaded with them, loaded with them.
You’re backlogged at this point.
I’m backlogged, yeah. So I just think it through, you know, and I pull out a couple and I think, “Oh yeah. We can do a psychedelic pop thing on this, you know.”
How many songs are you sitting on right now?
I don’t know.
More than a hundred?
Yeah. For sure.
Whose idea was it to do this record? Who approached who?
Well, you know, Andrew [Rieger] approached me a long time ago and said, “Why don’t we do some music playing together?” He knew that I was a fan of his music since his first album, since his first [Vainly Clutching at] Phantom Limbs thing came out. And I’ve known Laura Carter since she was a little kid. So I go way back with a lot of them, you know. And I really love Elf Power a lot. They’re a good band and he’s a great songwriter.
It’s been well-documented over the years that you’ve written quite a few songs under the influence. Is that completely gone or do you still occasionally write with a pen in one hand and a beer in the other occasionally?
No, I don’t drink alcohol anymore.
No. Absolutely not.
Do you ever enlist any other substance for songwriting help?
Well, the only thing, you know … I smoke weed every now and then. I love weed and weed is a good treeshaker. It is a good treeshaker.
What’s the last really, really good song that you wrote while under the influence?
Well, I was working on one the other day and somebody gave me some weed. And I really liked it. I think it’s called “O, Death!”
Okay, last question. About ten years ago you gave an interview where you said that the highlight of your career was singing the duet with Emmyou Harris on “Woodrow Wilson” [on Chesnutt’s album with Lambchop, The Salesman and Bernadette]. Ten years later, is your answer still the same?
Wow. That’s certainly one of them. Meeting her was a highlight of my career, that’s for sure. I didn’t actually sing it at the same time, you know. She came in and sang it after the fact. But I was there and I saw her do it, and it was still great.
Well, yeah. You’re going to sing it at different times instead of holding hands like you’re in a Willie Nelson movie or whatever.
I sang a duet with Rickie Lee Jones once, onstage, and that was pretty great.
One of her songs or one of yours?
A Hank song.
“So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
I sure hope somebody’s got video of that.
I sure hope they don’t.
I sucked, but it sure was great to do. I’ve had so many career highlights I can’t even think of them. I mean, you know, it’s like grains of sand almost I have so many. It’s incredible. I’ve been a very fortunate person, as far as my rock and roll goes.