Mainstream pop is no place for a solo piano virtuoso. The Classical Music Establishment has long considered its genre a higher art-form, one infinitely more complex and nuanced than market-driven, radio-friendly dreck for the masses. And yet, here’s Chilly Gonzales — colouring Drake tracks with melancholy piano spills; snagging a Grammy for his cascading keys on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories; and most recently, collaborating with Jarvis Cocker on Room 29, a concept album about the Pulp singer’s Hollywood obsession. Over the last decade, the Canadian pianist has become somewhat of a Mozart for millennials, and an enfant terrible of the classical world. He did it by tearing up the songbook completely.
Gonzales, born Jason Charles Beck, has built a career on heedless experimentation. As a teen growing up in Toronto, he studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music — only to go home and obsess over ‘80s Britpop records. After earning a hybrid degree in composition and jazz piano at McGill University, he fronted alt-rock band Son in the ‘90s, which, despite early buzz and an accessible, melodic sound, failed to launch commercially. Disillusioned with the industry, he fled Canada for Berlin, where he’d spend the early aughts reinventing himself — again and again. Assuming the alter-ego of Chilly Gonzales, a “musical supervillain,” he would remerge, by turns, as a “pranksta” rapper, a Billy Joel-esque soft-rocker, an EDM super-producer, and most improbably, a composer of delicate piano numbers.
It’s the latter incarnation that stuck; his 2004 breakthrough Solo Piano, a beguiling suite of pseudo-classical pieces filtered through pop song structures, connected with an unexpectedly wide audience. Nowadays, the 45-year-old’s Pop Music Masterclass videos — wherein he deconstructs Top 40 hits via musical theory; comparing the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic logic of songs like The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” to classics like Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” — routinely go viral. By bridging the chasm between highbrow and lowbrow art, Gonzales has achieved what’s evaded most con- temporary solo pianists: relevance.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the composer now finds the classical world nipping at his heels. Lately, he’s been fielding calls from big-deal orchestral virtuosos, all wishing to collaborate. His only terms? They follow his tune.
Because of your pop sensibilities and cartoonish stage persona, you’ve been accused of vulgarizing classical music. Yet, apparently your grandfather and father were huge classical music aficionados.
They were very Euro-snobbish in a way. They thought, ‘Let’s not lose those European ideals of the Great Man theory of composers.’ But I had to incorporate the parts I liked and reject the parts I didn’t like. MuchMusic was proof my grandfather was wrong. All I had to do was turn it on and say, “Okay, this really good, too.” Growing up, I liked The Smiths and Frankie Goes To Hollywood a lot — the personalities and attitudes of the singers really attracted me. They were playful but very sad and flamboyant. That really stayed in my musical DNA.
And you weren’t finding those personalities and attitudes in classical music?
Classical music is very institutionalized, so they tend to put the reverence and respect for the music at the very top of the pyramid. It’s ritualized to a point that seeing a classical concert is almost like a religious service. There are rules, like don’t clap in between the movements. And you’re supposed to just know what those rules are without ever being told. If there’s a really good movement in a symphonic concert, and it happens to be the second out of four, shouldn’t you be able to spontaneously clap? Yet, somehow, you’re meant to not express yourself. That’s not a good way to deal with a dwindling audience. The classical world is shooting itself in the foot if it sticks to this church-like atmosphere.
Perhaps the classical world could use your help. I’ve heard that traditionalist virtuosos now routinely call you up.
But that’s not the world I’m in. I try to exist in the pop universe and squeeze my music into what modern music actually is. I consider myself a musician of today, and I think today is wonderful. So I don’t care what happens to classical music. If it dies, I don’t give a shit. It can die. It’s not my thing; it’s not my fight. There is a classical influence in my music, but I’m not a gateway drug for people to get into Beethoven. I want my music to fit between a Danny Brown song and a Lana Del Rey song. It should sound and feel like you just heard a great pop song — one that happens to have a piano and string quartet. I don’t care if there’s acceptance from the classical world inasmuch as I like to play in classical concert halls. There’s also just a capitalistic reality that I can probably fill their halls much easier than some of their orchestras. Just my fanbase is proof enough they have to let me in. But I don’t need to look for their blessing. Not in a mean way, but I don’t want it.
Your career started with ‘90s alt-rockers Son. Two albums in, you decided to drop everything, move to Berlin, and reinvent yourself. Why the drastic detour?
Frustration. With Son, I wasn’t totally prepared for what the job of being a musician was. I realized, through the experience of Son failing, that I hadn’t had enough of a plan. So when I moved to Berlin, it was with the express idea that I was going to reinvent myself, take control of my narrative, and experiment for a while. I realized if you take control of your story, then you have the chance to amplify your music. If you don’t, then the institutions of media and the music business will fill in a narrative for you. You might not like it and you’re going to feel frustrated. I decided never again. This time I’m going to control the narrative in every interview I do, in every appearance I do, on stage I will telegraph ownership of my own musical planet, at every possible step of the way.
Although you distance yourself from the classical world, many people credit you for making that world more accessible. For example, you explain musical theory in your Pop Music Masterclass. And Jarvis Cocker recently said you helped him gain an appreciation for Mozart and Salieri.
Oh, I don’t know what he’s talking about! I guess just because we hang out, I’ll have music on and he’ll ask about it. I’m fascinated by the seeds of today’s culture that you can find in classical music. What I do with my Pop Music Masterclass videos is show that the tools being used by today’s musicians are the same as the ones used by yesterday’s musicians. When Mozart sat down and wrote a piece on an arpeggio, little did he know that 300 years later there’d be a Nicki Minaj song that uses arpeggios. What’s great is that those tools are just there, and people will continue to discover them and rediscover them, without it being conscious! We’re all part of a continuum of music.
But, as I said, I don’t care if people get interested in classical music — it’s yesterday’s music. It’s the universality of all music that’s really interesting to me.
That reminds me of something you said in one of your Masterclasses: all humans have a universal biological response to music.
Well, we’ve all felt the hairs on the back of our necks stand at a certain moment in music, and I just find that fascinating. Though we intellectualize taste, there are moments when music bypasses all that. It bypasses your ability to recognize references, and people might call this a guilty pleasure sometimes. I don’t want this Coldplay song to make me feel like I’m flying away into the heavens. And yet, maybe I do… I think it’s sad we can’t trust our bodies to just tell us what music we like. But we don’t; we have to see it through a prism. So I’ve decided to provide one. I accept the world as it is, and don’t try to live in idealistic one where the music should be enough. Maybe it is, but I want a career. I want money. I want to be able to do the things I want to do.