Eugene Chadbourne: high weirdness, mystical banjos, and not having to be a farmer
Part One: Taming the Wild Audience
Habitues of the wendythirteen-run Cobalt Hotel may remember Eugene Chadbourne playing there towards the very end of its run. It was a Fake Jazz Wednesday in August of 2009, and Doc Chad was up-to-date, as usual, on things going on Vancouver. His father lived in Calgary, for one thing, and he frequently stopped in B.C. on the way to visit him. He’d also spent part of his dinner that August evening chatting about everything from the Dziekanski tasering to the RCMP's failures to stop Robert Pickton to the Sahota family, who were in the process of ousting wendythirteen from the Cobalt’s premises.
Chadbourne’s set that night seemed to reflect his dinner themes. He played relevant Doc Chad originals like “City of Corruption”, originally recorded by his band Shockabilly, and “I Hate the Man Who Runs this Bar”, which he gave a “special title” for the night, “I Hate the Man Who Owns This Building”. That particular clip ended up on Clayton Holmes’ Eargoggles 6.
The funniest moment, however, occurred when Dr. Chad was doing a loping, hypnotic banjo rendition of “Orange Claw Hammer”, by Captain Beefheart, and someone, mistaking the tune, called out “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Doc Chad has pretty good skills at tuning out audience weirdness, but as he continued to play, you could see his brows furrow a little, and he remarked quizzically on mike, “You must be awfully drunk if you can’t tell Gordon Lightfoot from Captain Beefheart.”
Reminded of the moment, Doc Chad, on the road to a show in Portland, remarks, “I wonder if Canadian audiences are always waiting for someone to play a Gordon LIghtfoot cover? The critic at my last Western Front show confused ‘From the Morning’ by Nick Drake with ‘Early Morning Rain’ by Gordie, which at least was something I had played, if not since high-school coffeehouse days...”
Does Doc Chad have any favourite stupid/weird audience stories?
“I would say the weirdest things happen with audiences when I get into a job opening for a big rock band, such as Violent Femmes, They Might Be Giants or Corrosion of Conformity,” he replies. “I even opened for Delbert McClinton. My own audience tends to be fairly sophisticated at this point—they don't make a lot of memorable trouble. At Delbert McClinton, they simply screamed and booed at me through the entire set, but the promoter was paying me 1,000 bucks to do it (not really normal for an opening act!), so I was thinking to myself I am being paid more to be booed at than any of the audience make as an hourly wage—so there!”
Generally audiences at Eugene’s gigs are more respectful. At a 2010 Music Waste gig at a venue called Lick—about which the Straight interviewed Doc Chad collaborator, Darren Williams, here—the audience was privileged to witness Doc Chad silencing a chatty Vancouver crowd by that most unique means: quietly playing. Everyone (even your author) was standing around Lick talking. No one introduced Doc Chad. The lights didn’t change. There were no signifiers that a concert was starting whatsoever. The rest of the band, including Williams and Kenton Loewen, weren’t even ready, as I recall, but Doc Chad just sat down and started to play, again on banjo.
Doc Chad describes the experience of playing the banjo as “mystical”, and if you were there that night, you know what he means: it felt like Appalachian folk music by way of Ravi Shankar, coupled with some low-key Glenn Gould-like vocalizations. The volume of the chatter turned down exponentially, getting quieter by the minute, as even people who had come to be seen and hang out were transfixed by Chadbourne’s intensity of focus and singularity of technique.
That evening’s approach is in keeping with Doc Chad’s overall philosophy, when it comes to taming wild audiences, which is to “basically just play your music and not worry about it. Someone in the audience is bound to tell people to shut up sooner or later; if not, it’s a lost cause.”
Chadbourne thinks back to other musicians silencing crowds, and the different techniques he’s seen employed. “I had Mike Watt come on the PA system in a club where I was opening for fIREHOSE to tell the crowd to shut the fuck up,” he remembers. Also, “although it goes against my philosophy of the entertainer confronting the crowd—it just creates a kind of bad vibe—I saw Stevie Wonder playing solo piano for 10,000 people in the Edmonton Coliseum and although I thought people were pretty quiet, it wasn't quiet enough for him, and he started talking to one guy he said he heard chatting, saying, ‘That is no way to impress your girlfriend, man, talking during a love song!’”
As for irredeemably noisy crowds, Doc Chad strives to “take comfort in the fact that I could make a ton of mistakes and nobody would hear, or I can practice something... I got hired to play a friend's art gallery opening where of course nobody was listening, they were walking around drinking and talking, so for 25 minutes I just played the chords to ‘Chelsea Bridge’ by Billy Strayhorn. Getting paid to practice! Heaven!”
Part Two: Of Banjos, Guitars, And Donald Trump
If playing banjo is a mystical experience for Doc Chad, “playing a guitar is, in the end, about solving technical problems so you can play like a pianist. Of course different instruments take you to different places, especially with these two.”
Doc Chad is more likely to pick up an acoustic guitar at his home, working on sight reading, but generally travels with both guitar and banjo, and keeps his eyes for “light electric guitars” to bring on the road, especially ones not likely to malfunction.
“I hate electric guitars,” Chadbourne says, “because they are always breaking something stupid inside, suddenly they are buzzing, you keep having to take them apart and fuck around. They are being made worse and worse. The market is flooded with Chinese copies of vintage instruments that have some kind of fake metal/plastic hybrid parts that rot, corrode, need to be replaced. I bought a Bo Diddley Gretsch made in China years ago because nobody at the Music Go Round knew who Bo Diddley was and they had marked it down to 200 bucks, with case. I have had to replace every single metal part on the instrument in order to keep it playing. Some really fine electric guitars were made under strange circumstances. My Eko 12-string which I have with me on this tour was one of the instruments an Italian company was able to make in the Vox factory in Italy when the normal production line was off, using all the Vox parts and equipment.”
Chadbourne, when not on the road, lives in North Carolina—which is a “mixed bag”, politically, he says. “They would often like to have one Republican senator and one Democrat, the governorship switches parties often, and one of the favorite governors, Jim Hunt, was a liberal Democrat. Obama won the state, but not Clinton. Trump won by I think less votes than the number of people who bought tickets to the Rolling Stones concert in Raleigh.”
But given the history of the South, and Chadbourne’s own tendency to write politically provocative material, like “Don’t Burn the Flag, Let’s Burn the Bush”, or, say “Fayettenam”, which takes a few swipes at the Klan, does the current state of U.S. politics ever intrude on his shows, in the form of racists turning up?
“Not at all, I am lucky to get anybody at all to attend a show in North Carolina, least of all KKK members,” he says—though occasionally he does encounter political weirdness when he plays shows near military bases. “If there is a reason soldiers come, then interesting things happen. In Pensacola, once, the audience was almost all military and BIG fans. One told me there were more pictures of me and the electric rake in the barracks then ‘chicks’, and this was during the Reagan era. Right around the same time at an outdoor show in Columbia, South Carolina, military guys started fights with ‘hippies’ and were yelling stuff at me, the difference here is it was a free outdoor show at a big drunken rock 'n' roll bar as opposed to a show where people paid to get in.”
Trolling through recent self-released music on Chadbourne’s House of Chadula website, to see if he has any new protest tunes worth mentioning, I notice that “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” has popped up on Doc Chad homemades a couple times of late, like the 2017 IWW Band release (also featuring recordings of the late Doc Chad collaborator Jimmy Carl Black, best known as “the Indian of the group” for the Mothers of Invention). It’s a fun cover, much twangier than the original, and Chadbourne and Jello Biafra—whom Chad describes as seeming like “an unstoppable force of energy”—go way back. “He went to the same high school as me but was younger so I didn't know him then.” Chadbourne did a sample-based piece with Biafra (“Overpopulation and Art”) and has released albums on Alternative Tentacles, like his collaboration with Evan Johns.
So does the inclusion of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” in sets have any bearing on the current political climate in the USA?
It turns out in fact that it’s not true that he’s increased the frequency of that tune live. “I rarely play it, sometimes for requests. My daughter Molly told me she wanted to stop playing it in our family band, The 13 Society. Fellow daughter and member Lizzie Chadbourne agreed. I really hate Donald Trump, and could strangle him with my bare hands given the chance (especially if murder became legal!) but I won't let him take over the content of my performances.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t songs relevant to the current administration—like, say “Bullshit of My Tweets”. Straight writers haven’t heard that particular tune, but we know that Doc Chad will sometimes adapt classic oldies with new lyrics (like changing “The Girl from Ipanema” to “The Girl from Al Qaeda”). Is it perhaps possible that “Bullshit of my Tweets” is a spin on “Sunshine of Your Love,” by Cream?
“Yes, the tweet song was an excuse to play the great ‘Sunshine of Your Love’,” Chadbourne replies, and then gives the backstory: “A few years ago I had a run of Tuesday nights at a Raleigh venue, and the ensemble at each of these shows did a different cover version created for that night. All of them were about current politics: ‘How Insensitive’ for the ousted Republican governor Pat McCrory, for instance as well as ‘Wiping Your Ass on Carolina’, which some of the musicians rebelled against because the original James Taylor song is so horrible to play.”
Part Three: Enter the House of Chadula
There is no easy way to do justice to the richness of Chadbourne’s body of work. His Insect and Western series is full-on, acid-soaked soupy abstraction—which Allmusic describes, of Doc Chad’s music, as the “most difficult to understand and enjoy.” Then there are the deranged avant-psych workouts of Shockabilly, perhaps Chadbourne’s best known project. (check out Shockabilly’s “Your USA and My Face” here. Relatively subtle, it features one of Doc Chad’s most telling lyrics ever: “You’re drivin’ my brain/You want to change lanes/But I want to drive/Right off the Highway”.)
But Chadbourne also can subordinate his high weirdness to more straight up jazziness, for example guesting on Japanese pianist Aki Takase’s album of Fats Waller interpretations. A typical live set of Chadbourne’s may feature covers by Captain Beefheart, Roger Miller, Phil Ochs, Merle Haggard, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and even unexpected treats like “Beat It” by Michael Jackson. His House of Chadula CDRs, which sometimes replicate particularly memorable live shows, come complete with homemade covers, occasional liner notes, and bits of Chadbourne ephemera (pretty sure I have one packaged in an old X-ray). They range from all periods of Doc Chad’s career. His last two solo CDs were “done during the 2019 European tour, Doc Chad the Champion and What’s Been Baking.” There’s also Monks Dream with Words, where Doc Chad adds lyrics to Thelonious Monk tunes; and, he tells the Straight, “I am really digging the new collaboration with the Sunwatchers, released under the name of the Polyp Septet, which is extended versions of East Broadway Run Down by Sonny Rolllins.” (Pretty sure they cover the Minutemen sometimes too.)
So has he started selling downloads of his tunes? “I am concentrating on physical media,” he answers. “Sometimes I do downloads if the material has been prepared in that way and is ready to go. For example, several collectors were digitizing my old cassettes and sending me files which in turn some customers downloaded. But I find doing this work myself tedious and boring, whereas I like making the actual CDs.”
How about Spotify and other streaming platforms?
“The way Spotify works, they get stuff from labels that are defunct so it eliminates any expense dealing with a label, then they pay the authors and publishers of works a pittance per play that they proudly explain as an innovation, ‘micro-penny accounting’. They do not want to deal with living individuals who want to collect royalties so do not license anything directly from me. Every now and then they tell me they owe me 10 dollars, but will pay when they owe me 100 dollars... It is a rip off, and so is Google Play, which I actually was able to withdraw from because the Harry Fox Agency, which represents songwriters, would not make a new contract with them. If you want to stay on Google Play you have to create your own relationship with them, they want details and archives of published works. No thanks! As for thoughts on the platform, the Internet makes it easier for people to learn about music but the play platforms represent a larger exploitation of musicians and performers than anything in past musical history, which is saying a lot.”
It’s kind of pleasing that in the age of streaming, the best way to expose yourself to Eugene Chadbourne’s music is still by turning up at one of his shows, and maybe buying a CDR from him afterwards. Just let him know what you’re looking for: solo banjo? Country protest songs? Vintage Shockabilly? Camper van Chadbourne? He’s usually got a bit of everything with him.
Part Four: Collaborations, Craven, and the Coming Show
You may gather that Doc Chad has had a long and colourful list of collaborators. He has a six-CD set of duos with Anthony Braxton coming out; there was a recent vinyl box set of collaborations with John Zorn, circa 1978-1981, and his backing bands on some projects have included most of the Violent Femmes and Camper van Beethoven, as well as jazz greats like Han Bennink and Paul Lovens. (Of living musicians he’d love to work with, but hasn’t had a chance yet, Willie Nelson is at the top of his list.)
But one of Chadbourne’s more unusual connections was with Wes Craven. Chadbourne appears in Craven’s film Shocker, “sitting at a bar with a cute blonde talking to me while the detective's son tells his dad he dreamt about the recent murder of their mother.” Chadbourne would also release a CD of jazz interpretations dedicated to Craven, called The Hills Have Jazz.
So how the heck did he get involved with Craven? “I sent my music to a bunch of horror film directors at one point during the heyday of Craven, Dante, Cronenberg, et cetera... he was the only one that wrote me back. He played guitar. He was always really supportive and at one point I was one of his regular house sitters when I was playing in L.A. and he was out of town filming.”
The connection with Craven meant that Chadbourne got to watch him work up close, including being on hand for the shooting of the werewolf movie Cursed, starring Christina Ricci. “One memorable night I got to watch a wolfman scene being shot in Griffith Park (of course) at 3 a.m.”
Sadly, according to Doc Chad, Cursed was “one of the worst films ever made”. (We’re certainly no fans of it at the Straight; it’s possibly Craven’s most negligible title, especially compared to much better girl-werewolf movies like Ginger Snaps). “Not to speak ill of the dead, but Wes made some of the best and some of the worst films. Shocker was a production where almost everything went wrong. I tried to get the job doing sound effects but of course it went to someone in the industry that completely fucked it up, also the special effects lab fucked up everything. I have a file of letters at home from Wes where he sometimes details problems with different productions going on. I always wished he would, as he would like to say, ‘make a film for people like my friends, other adults’ rather than 12-13 year olds, which seems to be what much of the film industry concentrates on. From Wes came a great quote about my work: ‘There is no buffing wheel in Dr. Chad's workshop.’ He came to one afternoon concert in L.A. where I thought I had done a really good job with a Thelonious Monk tune, and he pointed out that he thought the solo was really superb… he was a real listener.”
Doc Chad’s Vancouver concert on Saturday (February 22) will feature support from Ford Pier and Stephen Hamm, Theremin Man, who has been a big fan since Ed Hurrell (often said to resemble Chadbourne) introduced Chad’s music to him in the 1980s. Chadbourne is hoping “to have a banjo Theremin jam” with Hamm that night. “I was fascinated always with the Theremin even when I didn't know what it was.”
That came in part from soundtracks to films, originally—like that of one of Chadbourne’s favourite movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which Hamm references on his Theremin Man CD. But “the Theremin on ‘Good Vibrations’ really got to kids to my age,” too, he adds.
It seems a daft question to put to anyone who has put electric pickups on a rake to turn it into a musical instrument, but has Chadbourne ever played Theremin? “Of course I have fucked around on them. A band I played with in France called Monster had a guy who played Theremin, but I thought he barely could play, he just waved his arms around and got the same sounds all the time. I saw a Dutch woman play Theremin in a swing band instead of bass—that was amazing.”
As for setlists, it is usually impossible to predict what Chadbourne will do on a given night; his fans know to just turn up and trust him. But here’s a question: many musicians with a history as long and storied as Chadbourne’s have songs they wrote that they’ve grown tired of playing, or reserve only for very special occasions. Does Doc Chad?
“I don't make formal decisions about anything like this. If there is a song you have created people really like then I can't understand the attitude of deciding oh I don't want to play that anymore. One whole point of being a musician, I always thought, was getting people to like something you do. The best comment about this was made by the great Ernest Tubb, when asked if he got tired of playing ‘Waltz Across Texas’ or ‘Walking the Floor Over You’: ‘How can I get tired of those songs, every time I play them I think to myself, because of this song I didn't have to be a farmer.’"
Eugene Chadbourne plays, along with Ford Pier and Stephen Hamm, Theremin Man, on Saturday (February 22) at Pat’s Pub. See here for more.