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Interview w/ Dr. Eugene Chadbourne
By Holly Day
(more articles from this author)
1999-09-08
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I first came across Eugene Chadbourne's work when I was fifteen and working as "theft protection" at a tiny record store in downtown Huntington Beach. At the time, the music industry was still putting trashy oils of wizards and fantastic creatures on the covers of heavy metal albums, and winsome photos of half-starved heavily-makeuped girls and boys on everything else. The independent labels were just starting to make their appearance in full force, with the first of the Flipside and the Alternative Tentacles compilations starting to worm their way into a few of the national chains, but still mostly just being distributed locally.

If the scene then had been what it was now-with everybody striving to put the world's most original cover on their CD jacket, with everybody having the same access to graphics technology and national distribution companies taking on as many of the independent labels as they do the major labels, effectively homogenizing and increasing safe accessibility to what was once considered an alternative subculture-I might have never picked up "Best of Shockabilly." The sole reason I did was the grainy grayscale photo of a man with his head in his hands, sitting on a chair in an otherwise empty room. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that was the only reason I bought the record, but hey, I was fifteen. "Best of..." was also the first non-punk record I had ever purchased, although in some way, it has been the most punk rock record I've ever owned. I played that record (and other Shockabilly/Chadbourne projects) so many times that my parents started to listen to it as well-I actually caught my father listening to "Camper Van Chadbourne" in the car one day when he was picking me up from school.

So, to me, getting to interview Chadbourne was sort of on the same level as reading a comic book and being so completely satisfied with the conflict resolution that you decide to call up Superman to congratulate him on putting the bad guys away, once again-and having Superman actually answer the phone and saying, "Yeah, well, wait 'til you see what I do next week."

[Holly] You've gotten to record and perform with some of the great acts of the underground scene, from Kramer to Camper Van Beethoven. Who have you enjoyed performing or recording with the most and why?

[Chadbourne] I have learned a lot from everyone I have worked with, and for that I am grateful although some experiences are more pleasant than others. With Kramer, for instance, I think I learned a complete set of ideas about how NOT to do things just watching him in action. Sometimes this kind of learning experience is necessary, although most of us would rather skip it. For sheer camaraderie, Camper Van Beethoven and Violent Femmes were fun to work with, because in the projects with me they would be more relaxed and less in a perfectionist or group mode than when they are normally working.

From Jimmy Carl Black, I learned the genius of simplicity as well as something about the outlook of someone who went through the entire cultural upheaval of the 60s as an icon. He is one of many great drummers I have been privileged to work with. Others include Han Bennink, from whom I have learned a great deal about the surrealistic potential of live performance, and Paul Lovens, one of my current duo partners from whom I have learned an unbelievable amount about drums, space and silence.

With John Zorn, I had a period of about five years where we worked together almost like Siamese Twins; however, like Siamese Twins, there was an innate desire to rip free of each other. Luckily, we were able to do so and still stay good friends.

[Holly] What instruments do you yourself play?

[Chadbourne] In order of quality of playing, years of practice: Guitar, banjo, piano, bass, drums.

[Holly] Do you have a favorite instrument that you consistently use for recording or performances? Where did you get it and why is it your favorite?

[Chadbourne] I really like my Dobro steel guitar, which I have had for 25 years and have modified a great deal since that time, to the point where it was just an incredible instrument and completely unique-until that asshole Rex Probe stomped on it during a drunken rampage at the end of a concert in San Francisco. Supposedly, it has been repaired and is on its way back to me for another few decades of action. Other instrument favorites are the Deering Deluxe 5-string banjo and the Gibson acoustic I got from my wife when we got married; both of these have been on lots of records.

A great guitar that should be mentioned in passing was the Burns electric guitar I was given by some local music store dodos. They had bought it for $30 from someone who came in and thought it was a piece of crap that only someone like me could play because the neck was so wide. This turned out to be a fantastic guitar made by George Burns, who worked for Mosrite, among other companies, and was crucial to the entire Shockabilly sound--this guitar was ripped off by a jerk in New York who broke into the band's van during a short lapse in security (guard fell asleep), the burglar also grabbed another guitar case which had not a guitar in it but an electronic dog skull, amplified rake and electronic toilet plunger.

The electric rake was actually created just as a lark one day, part of a whole series of objects amplified through contact mikes, an approach I think I really got off European improvisers such as Paul Lytton and Tony Oxley. However, the reception the thing started getting in clubs when it was included as part of a Chadbourne or Shockabilly show was awesome. People started treating it almost like a religious icon.

[Holly] Do you have any other interests in the arts (writing, visual arts, etc) besides music?

[Chadbourne] I have heavy involvement in both areas. I have always liked to write. When I was a teenager I wrote something like seven novels, then burned them all. In the last few years, I have had three books published, most noteworthy Mix Press' "I Hate the Man That Runs this Bar." I used to work as a journalist for the Calgary Herald and have had a lot of articles published in various magazines. Some people credit me with inventing the "tour diary" in which on the road fiascos are turned into laugh goldmines.

Since the early days of designing album covers, I have always enjoyed visual arts. I like sculpting, but better yet, I love painting and use it to relax while touring. It also captures memories of places I go better than any other way, including writing, which I think is interesting because I don't do realistic paintings, yet somehow in my crude manner manage to capture the essence of a place, at least in my mind. Last year I sold a few paintings but am kind of burned out on selling art because of my music business involvement, and would rather keep this side of my personality a kind of private thing.

[Holly] What do you think you'd be doing if the music thing hadn't worked out as well as it has, or would you be working on it no matter what?

[Chadbourne] Other careers I think would be good for me would be making films, writing screenplays, gardening and landscaping, archeology. One friend of mine wants me to sell long distance service.

[Holly] Who have been major influences on your life (positive or negative, not necessarily musical)? Have there been any significant events in your life that you think really contributed to making you the person you are today?

[Chadbourne] My father and mother were big influences. From my mother I learned the rewards of hard work and the importance of a work ethic and a sense of responsibility. From my father I learned to appreciate the arts and to get joy from them, despite the fact that in the typical macho environment of that day and age such pursuits were considered "queer."

Another enormous influence would be my wife, Emmy, who influences everything I do. Raising three daughters with her , an experience still in progress, has been one of the biggest developments in my life. From my children I learn new things every day. For example, if I had the wisdom of my daughter Molly when I was 13, it would have saved me a lot of trouble.

For several years, all my recording projects were mixed with one arm because I was holding a baby with another one. The first time Molly Chadbourne went on tour with me (at age 7, now she is 13) she used to participate in the electric rake demonstration, as we called it, the low point of which was one night in Austin when we jammed the rake into an old electric fan on stage, only to have Molly get hit full in the face with a cloud of old dust and sparks coming out. The entire audience gasped, thinking she was blinded! A critic wrote a nice description about how I instantly transformed from a madcap avant garde entertainer to a concerned parent. She was perfectly all right, thankfully.


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