While Chris was over here a couple of weeks ago in support of his latest record, El Radio, I had the pleasure of spending a little while talking to him. He makes really wonderful music and has a couple of brilliant records and an EP. You can hear some of his songs here. We sat down on the staircase in the back of the Luminaire and Chris asked me if he can fix his broken harmonium whilst we talk…
What happened to it?
They’re fragile enough anyway, and then the piano that we have with us actually tipped over on to it… it was closed, but… it’s not good!
Where did you get that?
My friend gave it to me, my last one broke. I mean… she kind of gave it to me, so I guess it’s mine. But I still feel bad… because it worked so well. It was the best harmonium I had ever used, and then, I dropped a piano on it.
How’s your day been?
Actually, it’s been really nice because we came into London last night from France, so we’ve just been on this block since last night, which is nice. I feel like usually when we come here it’s like, hustling. We get here late to soundcheck, all crazy. It’s nice to feel we’re here, we’re in England, we did the whole ferry thing, went through customs, weren’t worried about all that stuff… so, it’s been a really relaxing day.
What did you have for dinner?
We ate at this Italian place and I had a risotto and a bit of cheeseburger. Which isn’t Italian, but they had a weird menu. How’s your day going today?
My day’s been pretty good.
You wrote that comic, right? I though… I was 99% sure it was you, but I wanted to make sure.
Haha, yeah. I’m nearly finished my whole book of comics.
Yeah that’s what I did in the morning… I drew some comics, then I had my friend over and we watched The Birds. Lazy day!
So you have your new album. When is the release date over here?
It came out in France and Germany and Spain, and I think Belgium and Holland at the same time. I think September 15th. But I don’t know if it’s going to come out in the UK. I really don’t know the answer to that question. It’s probably on the UK itunes, but I don’t know if it’s in stores, yet… or will be.
Is there a vinyl?
Yeah! We got vinyl made for the first time. It’s the first vinyl, it’s exciting! I’ve been asking for a long time (laughs), but you know, it’s hard. But it feels like it’s more important to a lot of people, more than it did ten years ago, so…. It’s nice to have.
Where did you record you album?
We recorded most of it north of Massachusetts, in New Hampshire. Kind of in the mountains, on a lake. Sort of like mountains, they were more like hills I guess. In a family home my dad’s family has owned for years, or something. We were there for a couple of months on two separate occasions, and that’s where the majority of things were made. And that’s where we had people come up to record on it, and then we finished stuff at home in New York.
Who did you have play on it?
The first few months we had myself and Saul Williams. He used to tour with me but now… our work relationship now is more of a recording one and not so much of a performance one. He produced the album with me and he recorded a lot of instrumentation, and he wrote a lot of the instruments with me. We had Meredith Godreau from Gregory and the Hawk, and our friend Jenny O. Then we had a drummer named Adam Christgau. Another guy, Kenny Warren played trumpet. Anna Callner and Eleanor played trumpet. We had string players, flute players…. Yeah! At the end of the day there were about 17 or 20 people who played on it, which was so exciting for me. All I’ve really done is just a few people working with me over the past few years.
Are most of the songs new songs, or are they all quite old? Because, when I saw you a few times last year you played Hands on the Radio and Leaving Song. And then Dirty Night Clowns, Fireflies, they’re all…
Yeah. We actually were recording this about… hmm, let me see. We started recording in 2007, it was about 6 months… no, I’m sorry, it was 2006. It was before Music For Tourists came out. We just finished mastering and then a month later we went up to New Hampshire to start recording. So, three of the songs are from 2006: Dirty Night Clowns, Fireflies… and something else that was older. The rest started being written around that summer, mid to late 2006. We took a few months off then finished in 2007. So they’re all written between late 2005 to late 2007.
Do you have a favourite track?
I really like, when everyone’s all together, No More Pirates. My favourite one to play live at the moment is the second to last track on the record, it’s a reprise of Pirates, though it’s not really a true reprise. It was just sort of a joke, actually. That’s been really fun to experiment with, because when we were tracking it, it was really a strange but unique, but fun, recording experience. We didn’t really know what the sound we wanted was, we started going crazy with the cello, overdubbing all these cello tracks… I never really knew how we would perform it live. But, we just ended up doing whatever we do, which is really fun. It mostly involves Anna playing really amazing cello. I guess the other song, Hands on the Radio, has been an important song to play. It’s very meaningful to the record, for me… it has a lot of significance.
I really liked when you covered Harvest here, almost exactly a year ago.
Oh did I play that here?
Yeah. Do you do any other covers? Obviously Between the Bars…
Right, yeah. I’ve been covering a couple of French songs. Francois Hardy, well not Francois Hardy, she was the more recent person to do it, the song [something in French I can’t understand], she was the first person I heard do it, but before that Jacques Brel recorded it in the 50s and maybe 25 people recorded it in the 20s and 30s. And this other one [more French], which means ‘the prettiest one to go dancing’. I recorded it this past winter for a French film, and then I started to play it live a little bit. So we’re doing those, which is fun.
[Chris starts banging the harmonium]
Oh I think I fixed it!
I have a list of cover songs that I want to do, but I just haven’t gotten around to…
What’s on that list?
I really want to cover a Xiu Xiu song.. The Sad Pony Guerilla Girl. Do you know Frog Eyes?
Yeah! My friend Adam loves Frog Eyes.
Adam: Bushels is one of my favourite songs of the decade.
Ok, yeah. For an Absolutely Kosher (because we share a label in the US) compilation. We did a cover of Policy Merchant. But I never did it live… we did these percussive things, that I really can’t take any credit for, that were so complex, at least for me, that we could never get it together live. I’d want to do some version of it live, even if it was just me and the piano because it’s such an amazing song. And also it’s just a strange dichotomy for someone like me to be covering Frog Eyes to begin with… it’s just, straight up, a little strange. I’d like to reach different crowds. An appreciation for music that sounds nothing a like…
What have you been listening to lately? You have a lot of talented friends: Gregory and the Hawk, Scary Mansion…
Yeah. I’m surrounded by so many great people. Otherwise, I’ve been listening to Sebastien Schuller…
I think he’s playing here on Monday.
I noticed he was playing here, I hoped to be in the same town. He’s touring extensively. I picked up a few records… Van Dyke Parks [tries to remember what it was called], I was reading about Joanna Newsom’s last full length…, and this record was one of her inspirations and that’s how she ended up getting Van Dyke Parks to do the string arrangements. And now I can’t remember what it’s called. If you Wikipedia Ys there’s some great information on there…
Oh, that’s really loud. What else? The new Sunset Rubdown. Not that new, I’m a couple of months behind. I saw them in Paris a few nights ago, it was like back to the first time I saw them, a few years ago. They played New York to like three people. Literally three months ago they came back to New York and sold out Bowery Ballroom… 800 people. When we saw them in Paris it wasn’t 30 people, but it was less than a hundred. It was like back to the way it was. It was really good. I even cried a little bit! It was really nostalgic for me.
Do you catch much live music?
Not a small amount… but when I am home, I’m not really going to shows that much.
Take a break…
Yeah, definitely. I see a lot of bands when I’m tour, even if it’s not the night I’m playing. It’s fun to see bands not in New York.
How do the crowds differ?
Well, just like that show the other night, it’s small. And generally European crowds… there’s certainly differences. There’s more support through energy and love and not so much… pretence. There’s a lot of US crowds that are afraid to emote or be over supportive of something through fear they’ll get blasted by somebody, or somebody will shoot them down. But here, people like what they like… not so much walking on egg shells. There’s a lot of people looking to see what everyone thinks, you know? Here, if people like something… they just go to that.
Do you have hobbies outside of music? Do you like drawing or…?
I make little things. Just stupid things. I don’t really like to talk about them. I like to do a lot of visual stuff, I enjoy the whole getting dressed up kind of thing…
Well, more like… last year I did this party with my friend. It was supposed to be a play on when families get their kids to go to a makeover… making fun of that whole thing. We did it on Easter, so we had all these crazy Easter costumes and hair spray, blow dryers… we did these crazy photos. You know? Stuff like that. Whatever happens when it’s three o’clock in the morning… (laughs). They don’t just become things you throw away the next day, keep sakes. You feel like you’re making something profound. No, not profound in an intellect way… just profound… in fun. Just to make sure you keep yourself happy.
What have you got planned for the rest of the year?
Mostly be touring until the end of the year, until February. And then in March start working on the new record.
Yeah! Well, it’s time (laughs).
Have you got some songs already?
I have a few songs, and a few other ideas on what the album will be like. Someone who, if it ends up working out, will be producing the album and I’m really excited about… all these things. And we made a recording in Brazil…
Did you play a few shows over there?
Yeah. I really love Rio. I kind of want to live down there, work on the record down there.
Do you have a bit of a following over there?
A little bit. In Sao Paulo. We play a show, and people will come. There’s a great promoter down there who we work with. It’s a tentative plan for now.
That’s really cool.
Okay…that’s all my questions.
And you got your harmonium working!
I think so! I hope so! We won’t really know until we’re playing in front of you guys. Thank you, thanks for reaching out.