An Interview with Nate Chinen
I'd like to start with your background, growing up in Paris in the early '60s. What sort of music did you absorb at that time?
English music. English pop music: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, people like that -- and all their sequels. Everything that was American in the '60s in France was so remote that everything we had would be a kind of distant, muffled echo. It was kind of exotic. So all we knew was through pale imitations and really boring shit. We didn't even get what it was all about. All this R&B, for instance -- it took me much longer to realize that it was really a fantastic thing. All the stuff we heard was really stupid; like muzak. But the real thing came from England all the time. So I really enjoyed listening to music, but I never intended to be a musician myself. I'm not trained; I mean, I never went to school or something. It was by chance.
But you started playing professionally as a teenager.
Yeah, at 17. I was 17 when I left school, and right from the start I started playing. I didn't know much. It seems to me that I started learning things back then, and I'm still trying to learn things from every situation that I'm in. And I like it that way.
When you say that you didn't intend to be a musician; at some point you did pick up the guitar and start to study on your own.
No, I picked up the guitar because everybody had a guitar on TV. I just wanted to sing like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. I mean, at 14 or 15 we had these cool groups, like rock groups and stuff. And I enjoyed it; that was it. And at one point, this guy asked me if I wanted to join a little tour. I said yes, and thought that I would come back and return to my studies. But the tour ended up being a nightmare. To make a long story short: it was much, much longer than we'd intended, and so when I came back I had been away a little more than nine months, playing music with real professional musicians who taught me that you could get something more than just some Saturday night fun. And I thought it was really fun. It was worth trying to work on it. So I came back, I was in Paris and had nothing to do, so I figured out that I might as well go on. So I did all those dance bands. From then on -- six, seven years maybe -- all I did was folk art, dance things, everything. I would just learn. I was singing and playing bass; I was doing it as a job. I didn't know anything, so everything was good to learn. To learn how to make it swing, roll -- anything.
It seems that this unorthodox experience is crucial to the musician you are today, and your stlye.
Yeah. It is. What I regret now is that because of this instrument that I half chose and half picked up (because it was light and it was cheap, and everybody had one) -- I cannot really get involved with absorbing Mozart. I'll never be able to be inside Bartok and hear that sound, which is the only thing that I'm really interested in; to get wrapped up in this sound thing. What builds it up for me is the everything-ness. All this diversity, and changing moods and motions.
It comes across. There's a track on the Big Satan album called "Description du Tunnel," and your solo incorporates a country twang, some skronk, harder stuff as well as a jazz fluidity. I think it's employed in a very positive way.
Well, the negative way can also be something.
What you're talking about may be sometimes frustrating. Because you've got to play that through an instrument, and sometimes it really doesn't match this thing that you had in mind. And choosing not to be frustrated about it -- or to be frustrated and to accept that it's also something that can produce music -- is one thing that it's hard for me to realize. That all those things, not being satisfied, can also make it happen. You have to use it. Obviously, I cannot convey -- I cannot talk at the same time all those things that I would like to be sound. So what? I'm not just going to sit there and regret. It's also interesting to make it happen out of frustration and sometimes disagreement.
That tension can provide an edge.
Yeah, it's something. It's something that happens. Working with Tim helped me realize that.
There's a rumor that at one point you memorized a prolific amount of Wes Montgomery solos.
Well, yes. Since I'm self-taught, I was always frustrated at not having gone to school; not having all those proper grounds. Playing an instrument that's really not a regular training in a musical way. And the way I play it, despite all my efforts to imitate other people who I thought were really brilliant in building this path, I failed. I mean, I play in this way that's really anarchic. That's really full of contradictions. Every time I met someone, every time I fell upon some record that I thought was really an achievement, really something deep and strong, I would just try to absorb the most I could about it. So I did that for a lot of people; not only guitar players. At first I tried it with guitar players in that field. Wes Montgomery was one; Pat Martino was one too. I was amazed at that quality of rhythmic ... I have no words for it. I mean, it was just this bouncing thing that I thought was so classy. So dignified or something. A way to convey emotions that was so different from just dragging you and calling you. I thought it was beautiful. I tried to catch this thing, you know. But at the same time, I was also moved by Stravinsky and Led Zep. So I also know by heart a lot of Alvin Lee. I mean, I would just lay my hands on anything I could. Including stuff that was not musically equivalent. I just tried to lay my hands on everything I could. And yes, I did memorize [Wes]. And also I have a whole book of Tristano solos. Or Gary Burton. I was always led by this rhythmic impression. For me, that's the basis on which I really like to move.
That's something that strikes me when I hear your playing; a very percussive approach to the guitar.
And that reflects your tastes. You were drawn to that, and so your playing reflects that.
Yeah, probably. Basically, I'm just playing drums on the guitar. I know that; now I know it. That's what drew me to love Led Zeppelin, for instance. It's not the guitar hero side. What I liked in it, although I play guitar and not drums, is the way it all relates to basic central drum rhythmic way to build a thing that is unique. That's why I absolutely don't care about styles or schools. I would never say such a thing as "I'm a hard-rock freak." I'm not. I'm a John Bonham freak. He could be playing anything. He could be playing any kind of tune; not only those tunes. It's just his rhythmic feel that I love. Same with Stravinsky, or Mozart. So for a while I was satisfied in playing in this rhythmic feel, dividing time. And then after listening to and playing with people with a slightly different approach, I learned that you could be playing with a non-rhythmic approach and still put in some rhythmic backbone to it. Which is what I'm really interested in, mostly in this record you were talking about. I'm always trying to play this discrepancy between playing time and not playing it. Which is something that, playing with a percussive thing on the guitar, you're always drawn back to dividing time equally. And I try not to.
Let's talk about the guitar itself for a moment. There's a dualism, in that there are definite limitations in the instrument. And on the other hand, there are possibilities that don't exist on other instruments. Which of those would you like to address?
Well, limitations exist only... I mean, the guitar itself is just a piece of wood with some metal in it. So if it's limited, it's just limited by whatever people who use it want it to be limited. Basically, you can do anything on any instrument, and it's just a question of time and work. Which is nothing. It's just a question of thousands of hours spent on an instrument. If the question is just that, if the problem is just work, it would be too easy. Anyone could do it. But I guess you could do basically everything on any instrument. There are stacks of records to prove it. Now, what is possible on this instrument; I must say, I don't really know. I'm not really sure. I mean, what I do is just try to get some sound from it. And if today it sounds possible, I'll go to that direction. And if tomorrow it's something else, I'll try something else. I don't know; I'm not really a guitar freak. I just happen to play it. If tomorrow I break my hand, I'm not going to stop being a musician. I definitely would see myself playing trumpet or drums, or writing. Not even writing music. I really love the sound; I really love being involved in that magic. But the way we do it; it doesn't really matter for me.
It's interesting to thing of music as not being limited to whatever role you're supposed to play. You just mentioned writing; I'm interested in composition, and the way that you approach writing tunes. How you work with ideas, and form compositions out of those ideas.
I would say it's always the same: trying to stay away from something that you don't want to hear. Rather than trying to grab something beautiful. It basically could be anything. It's just... it really could be anything. I'm thinking of the people I'm going to play this with.
The songs that you write for the Big Satan group with Tim and Tom; there's a continuity that makes these songs reflect the continuity of the group. Whether it's Tim's song or your song, a lot of people would not be able to tell who's writing what.
That's exactly what Tim and I were saying yesterday after we rehearsed. His tunes and my tunes for the Big Satan group, which has nothing to do with the way I write, actually. It's just rather the way we perform the written material. Provided you don't close things too much, you don't make it too set, style-wise. Composition, of course it's beautiful. But what makes it beautiful is not the notes, obviously. Because you can ruin any great composition if you don't have this respect or, call it whatever you want; this state of mind. It's all just a question of being honestly trying to... to me it all boils down to that. To compose is just to change the focus. But once again, it's just like writing; it's not what you write about that's interesting, it's what you convey. Your honesty in trying to be there. Because otherwise you wouldn't explain that once we've practiced this very intricate and hard music, we all agree without even having to talk about it that it could also be totally open, and it would be exactly the same group and the same sound. What we're trying to aim at is definitely not the notes or the form. The form is one vehicle. But it has to have that thing, you know. Which ends up being a kind of magic, if you want to call it that.
I think there is something that's distinctive to this particular group. How has the experience of working with Tim in this and other contexts... what has that brought to the table? What has changed, what have you learned, and what happens when you're working with Tim that doesn't happen in other contexts?
It's hard to tell. I can tell what's happened in the past, because we've been working together for about ten years. In the very beginning, with this Caos Totale group, I came from somewhere else, musically. I was really surprised at these guys. Attitude, music, everything. The whole context was so new to me. I couldn't say I fell in love with it right away. At first it puzzled me, and I was questioning it a lot. I took it as a challenge at first, because it was hard to play. And I said: "well, there's no reason why I would try so hard to play something else that is set, and reject this." I really felt that I would have to dive in it. And then gradually, while we were on tour, and Tim was not telling me how to play it, I started grabbing things. Little phrases, little movements, sounds, that went against what I thought was the right way to perform music. Tim kept avoiding giving me a lesson in it. I just grabbed my way, through playing it and trying hard. I was always pretty honest. I always thought that since they took all this pain for so little money and so little -- how do you call reconnaissance? -- so little fame, probably they really meant to convey something. So it was just mine to try to sort it out. I learned that you could play something that was not nice, and it could help other musicians to find their spot. It's hard to put it in words, because it always sounds so corny...
Well, it seems like the process that you just described is not that different from your first exposure to music -- finding your way and taking different sounds...
So in that regard, you were perhaps uniquely qualified for that music.
I don't know. I think what qualifies you to be able to do it is really a question of just forgetting about trying. It's just honesty. It's like, you know, it's very stupid. It has nothing to do with words. It's just like, I want to be there and be wrapped up in that sound thing that happens sometimes. Everything else is just little rites: you know, composing, rehearsing, trying to be able to put your fingers on your axe in the right position. It's all little rites that may allow you to finally spend some good time with sound.
There's a bigger picture.
To me, it's just noise that's good. It's like a good meal, only with sound. But it takes the same kind of... it can be very complicated. But technically, yes, I learned slight differences. I learned that it's not the same being silent and being there, and being silent and oblivious that you're there. It seemed exactly the same until I had this thing. Once again, it's stupid to say it. But playing a silence because you're thinking about something else onstage, and playing a silence because you're thinking about all the weight that your silence can give to this particular moment in music; they're two very remote things. I couldn't list the things that I learned. Slowly, I was going toward some point where now I feel pretty comfortable. Well, no, I don't feel comfortable. But now I have fun not being comfortable in this context.
Let's talk about your group in Paris.
It's a trio -- with Bruno Chevillon, who's a double-bass player, and a young drummer called Eric Echampard, who just moved to Paris from the South of France.
You also had a tentet.
Yes, for a while.
And how long were you with the National Jazz Orchestra? What was that experience like; it's such an organization.
Only one year at the very beginning, '86-'87. I couldn't say I learned much there. I mean, seeing it from inside, it's like some other big band with much more money. But that was it. Music-wise, it was nothing that I would recollect.
Have you been touring Europe much with the trio, or are you mostly based in Paris?
Half and half. I mean, it's very hard for European people based in one country to tour another European country. We're lucky enough to start doing it a little bit. We have a big tour right after this one that we're doing with Big Satan; for like twenty-something concerts in Finland and Scandinavia with this trio. And we're playing some festivals in Europe. The scene, as you know, is totally different there. But I'm lucky; we have work. We have some consistency. We can work on things on a regular basis. Mostly I'm very lucky that these two guys are really willing to keep it together. Because gigs are not the core of it. They really want it to happen, so we're moving towards something. Music is not easy, but I'm very thankful for them. And they're really great. I mean, Bruno Chevillon is an immense bass player. He brings ideas, you know. It's the same with guys here; it's just like the standard is higher, so you have no other choice. You have to match, to make it up. That's what makes it really interesting for me. Because I can come up with something and say: "I wrote this for the trio," and Bruno starts working on it and comes up with these ideas that make it really expand. Music that just grooves, and it's really exciting.
I would imagine that it would be extremely difficult to get that group over here.
Oh, I don't think it's possible. It's once again one of those ironic sides. I must say, I mean, I'm not in the worst situation work-wise. I do whatever I want. I'm spoiled.
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