Perhaps Eugene Chadbourne is best known for (or most infamous for) the electric rake, a homemade instrument consisting of a garden rake with an electric pickup, creating a noise much like you’d expect from a loud, distorted rake. He doesn’t play the electric rake any more, but it gives a sense of Eugene’s unconventional approach towards music, his willingness to dabble in dissonance, and, perhaps most of all, his wild playfulness.
Eugene learned jazz and free improv under the tutelage of Anthony Braxton, and worked as a music journalist in Calgary (where he moved from his native New York during the Vietnam War) before coming to prominence in the early 1980s with the “ ss” band Shockabilly. There he reworked rock and pop classics as zany avant-garde experiments (think a more surreal version of Jimi Hendrix doing “The Star Spangled Banner”).
Since then, Eugene has continued pretty much non-stop, with a mind-boggling catalogue featuring dozens of releases and collaborations with some of the best artists around. He’s played with Cajun bands, Russian folk bands, and has created a unique cachet mixing free improv with country music. He’s pissed off his fair share of people, and fostered a devoted fanbase who have followed him through four decades of music.
I interviewed Eugene via email from the road in Michigan. I sent over some questions, and here’s what he had to say.
1. There’s a story that you were once described as “a direct threat to the American way of life” by a spokesperson for the Reagan administration. Why do you think your music (and experimental music in general) is seen as so threatening?
This ‘quote’ would be what is getting called ‘fake news’ these days, in that some friends of mine made it up after hearing a story about White House press secretary Larry Speakes showing up at a show of mine in Oxford, Mississippi that was later raided by the police. Mr. Speakes never said this about me being a threat to the American way of life. In fact, my opinion is that protest music is a regular part of American life, not a threat. An enormous part of our artistic heritage has to do in some way [with] rebellion.
I really don’t see anything that is actually threatening in any kind of music or anyone’s reaction to it; it is just a subject that people get wound up about, [and] they can get really aggressive about something they don’t like. Sometimes someone gets beat up because of music they played, but many more people get beat up for other reasons.
2. You came to country music from free improvisation, which is somewhat of an unusual path. What interested you about country music? What do you see as the possibilities of pairing the two?
When I was growing up, country hits, rock hits, and soul hits were all mixed together in the top 50. Along with that were the odd instrumental hit. The rock bands I followed all dabbled with country, to a greater or lesser extent.
Now as for free improvisation, part of the excitement was knowing that it would seriously piss some people off. Little did I know there were a huge audience out there who liked both country and free improvisation, and I had them all to myself.
Country and western music has many things going for it – it can be compelling in its sincerity, it can be clever and informative without wasting a lot of time on it. It chronicles the human conditions with a pause here and there for incredibly short solos.
It was actually on a bus ride from New York City to London, Ontario, to play a concert at an art gallery that I heard Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” on the radio and realized I had to combine these sorts of songs with the guitar music I was doing.
3. In addition to songwriting, you’ve done quite a bit of non-song writing – books, tour diaries, music journalism. How does writing words compare to writing music?
If writing words is ordering dinner, writing music is a restaurant where the tables are set upside down and the waitresses walk on the ceiling.
4. What can audiences expect when they come to see your show in Peterborough? What is a live Eugene Chadbourne show like these days?
I put together a collection of music I look forward to developing through the nightly performances. This [has] always been my process, but the repertoire changes according to my interests and many other factors. Tonight in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I found out a bassist from there I worked with on one recording session died last year, so I played a song I had recorded with him.
5. From what I hear, you have some history in Peterborough, dating back to playing with Joe Stable in the 1980s. Can you tell me about that?
I would love to have my memory refreshed about how this contact came about. I am guessing the usual situation where I am trying to find as many places in Ontario to play before or after a stint in Toronto!
I remember two distinct trips to Peterborough organized by Joe, but there might have been more. What is strange after 35 years is that these little rags of memory are there. There was a job for which I was supposed to get a percentage of the bar. This was not the usual way I worked, but I was told it was going to work out for me. I remained skeptical until late in the night when a group of tourists came in and began rounds of shots. I ended up with some good money that night. I remember an upstairs loft, spacious but jam packed with all kinds of things. Costumes? I remember costumes hanging on racks, and getting up very early in the morning and driving away.
See Eugene Chadbourne live at Sadleir House on June 6 with ELMS and Cold Eye (more info).
Photos by Chistina Larrick and Felix Groteloh.