Vic Chesnutt is a study in contradictions. In his professional life, the most recent example of that is two new albums recorded a month apart: Skitter on Take-off, a solo album produced by the great Jonathan Richman,and the decidedly different-feeling At the Cut, his second album with Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra. (He previously paired with them in 2007 for North Star Deserter.) Before playing a gig in Atlanta, Chesnutt talked with us about how to deal with an embarrassment of artistic riches, the virtues of being lucky rather than prepared, and the unquestioned political chops of Dick Cheney.
How did you come to the decision to release Skitter on Take-off and At the Cut so close together? After At the Cut made such a big splash, Skitter on Take-off seems to be flying under the radar.
I really didn’t want them to come out so close together, but Jonathan Richman, who produced Skitter on Take-off, really wanted to get it out there. I think it’s fine now. They were recorded a month apart and they came out about a month apart.
What did Jonathan Richman bring to the table as a producer?
I’ve known Jonathan for 20 years. He’s been a mentor of mine for years and years, taking me on the road for a long time. He’s helped my career along in many ways, but the most important thing is that he’s been very supportive. Sometimes I don’t have a lot of self-confidence. He’s also given me a lot of advice, and watching him onstage has helped me as a performer a great deal. It’s very much a mentor-protégé relationship.
How did that translate in the studio?
The whole record was basically his idea. He heard my last album with the Silver Mt. Zion guys and the guy from Fugazi [Guy Picciotto], and he said, “You don’t need all that shit. I like when you play solo. There’s all this space and you fuck up a lot.” He said that was my strong point and that was what he wanted to hear. That’s what he did. He flew me out to San Francisco and we turned on the mikes. He didn’t know what songs were going to happen. I asked if he wanted demos, and he said, “Hell no, I don’t want demos. Turn the mikes on and start singing.” That’s really what we did. Sometimes his drummer Tommy [Larkin] played on the tunes, and sometimes he’d say “Hell no, I’m not playing on that one.” Sometimes Jonathan picked up his guitar and started strumming along. Sometimes he played harmonium. It’s a very organic thing. Skitter on Take-off is raw. At the Cut is not raw. It’s aggressive in places, but it’s very crafty. It’s also a brain trust of these very talented musicians, all-stars really, and Skitter on Take-off is just me and very unrehearsed. Some of the songs had never been sung out loud.
Do you consider them to be companion pieces?
At the Cut is like a memoir almost, very personal, and there is nothing personal at all on Skitter on Take-off. It’s all fiction or social commentary. At the Cut is also a band record. It’s very crafted. We sat around and worked it out, did the overdubs and shit like that. Skitter on Take-off is a lot of me recorded live, and all the songs are brand spanking new. Most of them are less than a week old; some of them are less than 12 hours old. They are the different sides of the coin of my oscillating rock 'n' roll personality.
So At the Cut is a more personal record, even though Skitter on Take-off features more of you?
That’s exactly how it worked out, and I don’t really know how to feel about it. Of course I love both albums. At the Cut is probably the most accomplished thing I’ve ever done as a musician, as far as rock 'n' roll and pop music goes. The songs sound amazing to me, but Skitter on Take-off is more like the kind of music I listen to. I like Aretha sitting at a piano. I don’t necessarily want all the Mussel Shoals shit on there, even though it’s great and I love it. I think that as Vic Chesnutt goes, they’re each equally weighty. You can love both things.
Tell me about “Unpacking My Suitcase.” That one seems kind of personal.
Shit. I forgot about that song. That is probably the one song on the album that’s personal. That is a song that exactly happened. I wrote this song the day I got back from recording North Star Deserter. I flew home from Montreal, I unpacked my suitcase, and suddenly the first line was right there. The aroma of my clothes caught me. I grabbed my guitar and I wrote that fucking song in its entirety in about one minute. It’s a love song to all my friends in Montreal.
Are you getting sentimental in your old age?
I think it is one of my most sentimental songs. I’ve never even approached such a noncynical song in my career. It was definitely new territory for me, but it was a very true, emotional moment. To be true, there is some humor in there. The whole thing about stuffing my cheeks like a squirrel is funny, but it’s very sentimental. There is a little of the Chesnutt humor in there, but very astute of you to notice my first foray into the arena of sentimentality.
There’s an open part of you on that song that isn’t often present in your work.
My life is an open book, but by nature I’m a very cynical person. I was an angry young man, and now I’m old. I’m an angry old man, and the fact that this sentimentality is occurring is something revolutionary in my world. It’s something brilliant, actually, to have these kinds of feelings. I was in love with these people; this is a love song.
Speaking of love songs, tell me about “Dick Cheney.”
I was reading that book Angler, and it struck me how fascinating a character he is, really one of the most talented politicians in modern times, maybe since FDR. I was really just taken with his character and what he was able to accomplish.
Do you feel like you’re going to take some heat for that?
No, because I pretty much say that he’s an evil fucker in the song, you know, and he is an evil fucker.
You don’t think there’s a "sympathy for the devil" aspect in the song?
There’s no sympathy. There’s admiration for his political talents. He is an amazing politician. People say that Bill Clinton is a good politician. Dick Cheney creams that motherfucker. Just creams that motherfucker. The song says that he did evil and unconscionable shit, but he took the reins of the government and single-handedly controlled the country. It was like a coup for five years until George Bush finally wised up and saw that he was ruining everything and torched his legacy.
The other really striking song on Skitter on Take-off is “Worst Friend.” That’s close to epic scale for you.
That’s true, but what’s funny is that is was even more epic. I cut out a whole other aspect that used to be in the song. I eliminated it because I thought it was too much. I made a conscious decision as I started to play it to delete this whole other story, because I thought it was too heavy and overbearing. I thought it would work better as a more straightforward song. There’s some pathos there, but the most memorable lines are the yuk-yuks.
As a journalist, I am duty-bound to ask whether you made a list of your actual friends before writing this song.
Are you sure?
These are not my friends. These are like everybody’s friends. There are only a couple of true lines in the car, but they are the biggest yuks. There is some real true shit going on.
You have a lot of friends. I’m trying to figure who’s who.
I’ve got a lot of friends. These are people who are hanging out in the rock 'n' roll world. These are not my parents’ friends; they’re a fictionalized version of what’s really happening out there. I wish I had put that other aspect in the song. How long is it on the album?
It’s about seven minutes.
It would have been 10 minutes if I didn’t cut out this other aspect. It was about this guy who was writing a suicide note to this person who had all these great parties and was fostering the hipster scene. It had a different chord structure and everything. It’s always been a crowd polarizer. It’s super when you’re singing all these funny lines, and then sing a sad one and suck the air right out of the room. The torsion of that moment is so immediate.
Don’t you think that kind of sums you up as an artist?
That’s my worldview in many ways. I have a dark worldview, but I’m also full of yuks. I’m always on the prowl for yuks, and I’m very quick to laugh. Now I wish I’d have put that other fucking aspect in the song, but I think it would have been too sad. Even so, one of the biggest punch lines is missing from the song. I guess that’s sad too.
Are you playing it tonight?
No, no, no. I’m here with a band. It’s really the best band that any singer-songwriter has ever had, and I’m going to use them. There’s never been a folksinger that’s had a band like this. Even Crazy Horse, which is a really good band, doesn’t have the visceral power. People say that Wilco is the best live band out there today, with that guy, the guitar player, or whatever, but the sheer power of this band, the combination of the punk rock and the folk offers something really unique and emotionally powerful. I’ll play some solo stuff, but I ain’t going to play that “Worst Friend” song. It’s 10 minutes live even without the suicide note part.
Now that you’ve worked with Jonathan Richman and have this band, where are you going next?
Well, you know, I’ve got to make a record with Giant Sand since they’re such good buddies of mine. We’ve toured together, but we’ve never made a record. I’m sure there will be a Sparklehorse record at some time in the future. I really want to make another record with Bill Frizzell, with him playing guitar and me singing. I’m sure I’m leaving out the collaborations that I’m really the most jazzed about.
Is this something that you think about when you’re listening to music?
It is, but it’s not something I consciously do. I’ve said it before. I’m not a good planner, but I’m a good “faller-intoer.” I fall into things very easily. I’m like a cat. I land on my feet. I fell into the Elf Power thing. I fell into the Brute thing. It wasn’t like I had big plans to make a record with Widespread Panic. They were fans and it just worked out. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll just fall into some more shit.