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Published: 1999/02/15
by Chip Schramm

Getting Down To Business: An Interview With Vic Chesnutt

There’s something truly moving about the music of Vic Chesnutt. For those who are not familiar, Vic is a singer-songwriter who has frequently written songs for prominent bands and singers to perform. His music has become so widely appreciated that two tribute albums of his music have been released, Sweet Relief II and Gravity of the Situation. His music has inspired the likes of R.E.M., Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins, and Widespread Panic, just to name a few. The folksy tone of his ballads is rooted as deeply in his soul as the red Georgia clay of the earth in the state he calls home. Indeed, there are few words to describe the chill that ran up my spine as I sat quietly in an empty room at Newby’s for the soundcheck and listened to Vic moan out the soft and delicate verses to “Aunt Avis.”

I caught Vic on the early leg of a cross-country tour that had stopped in Memphis, Tennessee on Thursday, January 21st. He was performing solo since it would have been extremely difficult to organize all 13 members of the Nashville ensemble Lambchop for a national tour. While backing Vic on his most recent work The Salesman and Burnadette, Lambchop provided a very fluid rhythm section that compliments Vic’s vocals well. The album is not supposed to be autobiographical, but the wry puns and painfully forthright narration are vintage Vic. After woofing down a big dinner in the dining room at Newby’s, Vic joined me for a little chat before he went on to play.

C: You’re back on Capricorn records now, after recording a bunch of albums for Texas Hotel and then Capitol. What’s it like coming back?

V: I like those guys, you know. They’re right down the road from me in Atlanta, so that’s good. I known them for a while, the Waldens, Phillip and Phil. I dig them both. The music industry is such a weird place it’s hard to know what’s going on, really. They have other connections so it’s not just them. They’ve got Polygram to worry about, so who knows what the future will bring. For now, I really like being there.

C: Was the new album already tweaked the way you wanted when you switched labels?

V: Yeah, it was ready to go into production, in fact, I was on the phone with the art department working on the art work when I found out. They were just like “Wait, hold on a second…..maybe I better let you talk to somebody else.” It was ready to come out.

C: The album cover for The Salesman and Burnadette describes itself as both “fiction” and “sloppy satori.” How would you describe “sloppy satori?”

V: I was trying to describe a little bit about the story that was on the record. The songs are about loss and longing and sloppy satori which I was referring to as haphazard enlightenment, you know kind of……

C: Serendipity?

V: Right, exactly. You know, an epiphany from the outside, not really seeking it really — Blind-sided enlightenment or something like that.

C: You’ve produced quite a few albums and had a chance to work with a lot of different people. How is working with guys like John Keene, Michael Stipe, and even Todd Nance from Widespread Panic?

V: Todd played on the Brute record, of course. We took some samples of Todd from Panic demos on About to Choke, my last record. I did a lot of it at John Keene’s and he had a lot of tapes laying around, so we stole some of his fat beats; ‘cause Todd is THE best drummer on earth. I heard a lot of drummers in different places, but he is the best one I’ve heard. It’s not just being able to wail on it, he’s real tasty. He drives it, he’s got the heaviest foot, his kick drum is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Even when we’re playing strip-down acoustic or practicing backstage for a Brute show and he’s just sitting back there playing quiet while we strum acoustic guitars. He’s got a feel. He can play the drums like a piano virtuoso. He just finesses it. Of course he can slam, too. He’s the best drummer in the world, no doubt about it.

C: No arguments from me. Did you know Todd and John around Athens before you became involved through music?

V: Well I knew of them and I’d seen them play since we started out at the same time. Panic was playing at the Uptown every Monday night, while I played every Tuesday at the 40-Watt. Then they started touring a lot and so did I, so I didn’t see them too much. I remember seeing Dave Schools at a Dead show once. I think I saw him there… Altered states were taking place. That was about fifteen years ago. I didn’t really know them really until we were introduced to do the Brute record. When I found out that they liked Drunk [one of Vic’s early albums on the Texas Hotel label] I just said, “man we gotta jam together.” Gomer who was the long-time touring soundman, monitorman, mentor kind of guy was their original sound-dude and my first soundman in Athens at the Uptown. When he told me they dug it, I was like “Oh my god, we gotta jam together.

C: So you took the initiative to get Brute together at first?

V: No, it was all Gomer’s doing – Gomer and Scott. Scott Stucky was the engineer on my record West of Rome and produced Drunk for me. They were practicing in his basement for a while. I couldn’t believe that Brute happened. It was so much fun to do, just to see them in action in the studio. They don’t do that thing too much, especially as a whole band. They hardly back up anybody else really. I was truly honored and I just had a blast. I love that record [Nine High a Pallet] it’s about my favorite record. I think we did a really great job. I’m proud of the songs and the arrangements are really great. I wanted to release it as my last Texas Hotel record, but they wanted more of the folky music.

C: It seems like your wife Tina is a very big part of your music. She’s both on the albums and also on the road with you all the time. Did y’all play music together before you were married?

V: No, not really. I saw her play when she was with a band called the El Caminos in Athens. They were kind of country-rock; she played banjo in it. After we were married I was talking to one of my friends at a party about needing to find a bass player and he said “you’re married to a bass player.” She had never played bass in her life, but we thought she could. So I went home and woke her up and said “Tina we’re gonna get a bass, we’re gonna learn to play bass.” So we did.

C: And the rest is history.

V: She’s been on all of my albums since.

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