Interview With Vic Chesnutt (Great American Music Hall show tonight!)

Note: The following interview is also featured on SFist.

photo: Yannick Grandmont

2009 has been quite the year for Vic Chesnutt. The prolific singer-songwriter released two albums (At the Cut and the Jonathan Richman produced Skitter on Take-Off), appeared on the Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse collaboration Dark Night of the Soul and toured extensively with his all-star band, featuring Fugazi's Guy Picciotto along with members of Canadian's post-rock heroes Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion. We had the good fortune of reaching Vic via phone over the holiday weekend, where we talked with him about his band and recent works, and he told us a bit about what to expect from his show tonight at the Great American Music Hall.

You have an amazing set of musicians supporting you on this tour and on two of your recent releases, At the Cut and North Star Deserter. In my opinion, it doesn't get much bigger than Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, and Silver Mt. Zion/Godspeed You! Black Emperor connection is pretty damn impressive as well. How did the group come about?

It was all Jem Cohen’s idea, the filmmaker and my best buddy. It was all his idea to bring us together. He did my previous two records – Silver Lake and Ghetto Bells -- and he said he wanted to make a good Vic Chestnut record. He wanted to exploit the two halves of my songwriting and my musical life, and that is the acoustic and the distortion.

Was the songwriting with the band collaborative?

No, I wrote all the songs, and they backed me up. That’s usually how I work. The collaboration I did with Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse on the Dark Night of the Soul album, that you know was a different process. But the Vic Chesnutt records are always me writing the songs, and somebody backing me up.

Reading some reviewers descriptions of At the Cut's genre is pretty amusing -- a lot of post-alt-slash-slash type of stuff. That said, the sound here is distinct. How would you describe the music you are making with the band, both here and on North Star Deserter?

Well you know to me its just that same old shit I’ve always been doing. But as you said, the band really is amazing – this is an incredible brain trust with this band. And you know, it’s been described by some as the darkest record ever. Now I don’t know about that, but I do know that live... the records don’t even touch the live show. There is no doubt about it -- this is the most powerful band a folk singer has ever had. People don’t forget the show.

One of the tracks I am really looking forward to seeing live is "Chinaberry Tree" -- it is just an epic track, both lyrically and musically. What's the story behind this one?

You see, I have a chinaberry tree in my backyard. My father-in-law was at my house one day and he pointed at it and said “that’s the biggest chinaberry tree I have ever seen!“ For some reason that made the bells and whistles really go off -- it made my heart flutter. I thought it was a beautiful statement, and mulled It around for a few months. And then one day I was on the back porch, looking at this chinaberry tree, and this concept just came to me, about how I could use it as a symbol. A chinaberry is kind of a nuisance tree. It’s a beautiful tree, but it grows easily… they are like weeds. I don't want to illuminate the actual song too much, because it’s an impressionistic surreal tale -- I’ve called it a Southern Gothic symbolism this song, kind of a dreamscape -- but that’s where the kernel of inspiration comes from.

The album title really pops out in the lyrics of that track -- “throwing myself at the cut, with a force heretofore unknown to me.” Was borrowing this line for the album's title an obvious choice?

Well we were mulling over many names. You see everyone who played on this record -- along with Howard Bilerman, the engineer -- all produced it and arranged it and everything. And we all came up with the title -- it was a very democratic process. But the band refused to name the album what I wanted to name it! They completely refused.

What was that?

I wanted to name it North Star Deserter.

The same name of the last record?!

Exactly! I thought it was revolutionary – no one has ever done that before. But they completely refused.

Should we assume that the live show will be North Star Deserter and At the Cut exclusive, or can we anticipate tracks off 2009's Skitter on Take-Off along with your older material?

I’ll play some Skitter, and definitely some North Star. And At the Cut -- heavily from that. And you know, some old songs too. We really put together a perfect set. I know people want to hear my old songs or whatever, and we play a couple, but it really is just a perfect set.

So can we expect a full-band rendition of Skitter on Take-Off's "Dick Cheney," complete with a violin breakdown?

Well unfortunately our Violin player, Jessica Moss, had to go home due to the flu!

That’s too bad!

Oh, it’s sad. But we still have seven people, and it is still just the most powerful band. If people come to the show, this is really the most powerful band they will see -- maybe ever.

Speaking of the band -- there is a pretty stark contrast between the near orchestra backed At The Cut and the more you-and-a-microphone storyteller approach on Skitter on Take-Off. Was the back-to-back releases of At The Cut and Skitter intentional?

I recorded Skitter on Take-Off with the album's producer Jonathan Richman just a few weeks after At the Cut, and it just kind of happened. Maybe not the most ideal situation, but a happy accident really.

You know, these albums are another illustration of the two halves, or two sides of my song writing. At the Cut is very personal -- its almost like a memoir -- but Skitter on Take-Off is full of fiction. And of course At the Cut is a fully realized, very mature production. Skitter on Take-Off on the other hand was recorded live, and very improvised. Most of the songs were written within a few days of the recording session. So Jonathan and our drummer Tommy Larkins played along with me -- you know very spontaneously. So they are very, very different albums, but I love them both very much. I am super proud of both of them.

Any plans to do a solo storyteller type tour in support of Skitter on Take-Off?

I am sure I will, and I am sure I will tour with Jonathan Richman. You know, Jonathan is a real mentor to me. I've known him for years and years and he has taken me on tour many times -- he is just a real mentor to me. He is a treasure, and he has had a great influence on me over the years. The show I am doing in San Francisco in a couple days would not be the same if I had not toured with Jonathan over the years. He really has completely changed my musical life. And you know, I am proud to be his protégé.

While your niece Liz Durrett is becoming more of a household name, I was pretty excited to see Warpaint was joining you at your show. Care to tell our readers what they can expect from the openers?

You know San Francisco is actually the first show with Warpaint. I am not too sure how we got so lucky to get them on this date. And my niece, Liz Durrett -- she is amazing too. She blows my mind how good she is solo.