Aoife McElwain chatted to musical genius and entertainer (his words) earlier this week ahead of his Dublin solo piano talk show in The Sugar Club this Saturday (Tickets are €19.85 plus fees). Canadian-born Chilly has just released his career best album Ivory Tower which has a companion film of the same name currently showcasing in major cities. You may recognise his ‘Never Stop’ song in the latest Apple ad and noticed his crazy rapping on single ‘I Am Europe’ which slams together mutually exclusive ideals – sample line: ” I’m socialist lingerie, I’m diplomatic techno / I’m gay pastry and racist cappuccino”. Chilly now based in Paris, talked to Aoife about his collaborators including Feist and Tiga, going independent, the film, his epic piano battle with Andrew W.K. and why’s he’s a loudmouth entertainer and not an artist. But first, we need to know.. what exactly is a racist cappucino..
How exactly, would you define a racist cappuccino and if it was the only thing available to you in the morning, would you still drink it?
Well, a racist cappuccino is not necessarily a complaint. I say “I Am Europe” because I really feel like I have a lot of those qualities I’m describing, both bad and good. Europe is fascinated by places like Europe and America. America is like the new world and Africa is the old world. Everybody is fascinated by other races and other cultures. In Europe, they are really trying hard to keep their old values and they realise it’s not the same place it was a 100 years ago. It’s actually a better place. I moved to Europe in ’98. I went to Germany. My parents had to leave Europe because of the Germans in the ’30s. So I think I’m a product of the European experiment working. The fact that I could go back to Berlin in ’98 that fast and use the fact of being a Jewish American rapper in Berlin to my advantage in a media sense. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m a strange product of America and Europe. I have a European skillset and an American attitude. Old school aristocratic skills: arranging music and the technique of music but I have a totally capitalistic attitude compared to most Europeans which allows me to write songs like “I Am Europe” but also get away with it. So that’s what a racist cappuccino is.
You’ve worked with people such as Feist, Peaches and Jamie Lidell, and even Jane Birkin. What is your creative criteria for choosing people to work with? I know Feist and Peaches are very close friends of yours too so is there any confusion between the balance of being friends and musical colleagues?
I think for some people it might be but that’s the reason we had the confidence to move to Berlin in the first place. We all moved to Berlin in the same period of six months from Canada and that’s my family, that’s my core group of people. More important than collaborating is knowing each other well is giving each other advice. I’m more on the board of the directors. If you look at the number of songs we wrote together, it’s not so many. With Feist, yes, it’s the case that I’m in the band and playing the songs but when you’re working with friends you know exactly what your job is. You know when you have to challenge them, when you have to placate them, when you have to get out of the way. You can imagine my standards are high in that respect. It’s a great way for us not to have ego problems between us but still be involved with each other all the time. Those relationships are like long term marriages.
I never wanted to be a producer but I fell into it to help my friends, and once in a while I get lucky with someone new, for example with Tiga. I knew we would get along because we fundamentally share characteristics, and are from Montreal. But most of all, he tells me what his strategy is and I can help. It doesn’t really matter if I never write a song with Tiga again as long as we have access to each other.
After your experiences with Warner and your first band Son, after the success of your work with Feist and the Grammy and all, and indeed your 2008 record Soft Power, how has releasing Ivory Tower differed especially as it seems to have been a more independent record, with the help of Phantasy Sound and Boyz Noize.
It’s literally independent in that the movie and the album are financed by “Sugar Daddy Gonzales”. I’m my own sugar daddy. Obviously it’s very liberating but despite having a control freak image, I’m surprisingly well buttressed by amazing people. No-one can have a ten year career even on my underground level without the support of amazing people. I needed those labels even if they were bad relationships, I needed them. I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the security, I didn’t have the people to help me do what I wanted to do. But I finally did that last year. I think everyone has what they justly deserve and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I think it’s about what you want, what you are prepared to do. What Feist has to do to have this kind of very clear direct relationship with her audience, I see what it takes to maintain that and the sacrifices you have to make. The moment it gets too much she will be able to stop.
There are things you can do to be realistic about your potential. It’s not possible for millions of people to follow you closely a lot of the time because for that to happen you have to have a more universal image. No-one would throw that money at me because they know I’m more nuanced and have more contradictions. it would be much easier to not put the contradictions out front like “Why is the piano player also a loudmouth?” Normally a piano player is such a goody goody two shoes. “Why is this loudmouth also an amazing piano player?” I like that element of surprise. When you find something you love to do which happens to be music in my case, you’re already ahead of 90% of the population and then if you get to do it for a living, then you’ve won the lottery. If you get moderately rich like I have doing it, you can’t complain, I’m one of the luckiest humans on earth. It’s not like, “Ugh I have to do these interviews”, it’s “WOW! I GET to do these interviews”. That’s my attitude.
After the teaser in the I Am Europe video, I’m really looking forward to seeing the Ivory Tower film. Tell us about that process and is chess merely the MacGuffin of the film?
Wow! How do you know that word? In a way yes. The idea of who’s going to win the chess tournament is of course, a device to keep you interested in the movie. Chess is there to take the place of the music. Most people only write about one thing their whole lives. So in a way I’m still writing about competition in my songs but I wanted to go deeper into this idea of why I’m so hard on hypocrite fake types who deny they are there to please the audience. That whole theme which runs through all of my songs, there’s a reason for it because I used to be that guy. When I decided to kill the artist in me and become an entertainer full-time, there was a reason for that. Having met real artists in my life, I was sick of meeting all these people who weren’t pure artists but were claiming that title. I thought that the word artist was being ruined. Out of respect for those real artists, I decided I would use a new word that would describe what is respectful to the audience and that’s entertainer. Let’s just put aside the idea of quality of music because right now entertainer sounds like someone who is ingratiating, insincere, calculating, all those things but actually all entertainment is, is respect for your peers and your audience. A tree doesn’t fall in the forest and make a sound if nobody hears it. That’s my manifesto if you will.