From his early, unclassifiable beginnings alongside Peaches in late-Nineties Berlin to his elegantly pared-down trio of Solo Piano albums and work as a producer on Feist’s breakthrough album Let It Die, Jason “Chilly Gonzales” Beck has for years been a maestro on the keys and a go-to collaborator for an international who’s who of multiplatinum stars—from Daft Punk to Drake to Jarvis Cocker. Yet the core of his output remains electrifying live piano performance, sometimes with backup instrumentation, sometimes with punchy lyrical excursions, always in a bathrobe and velvet slippers.
In 2017, he began devoting his time, resources, and industry connections to an ambitious new venture he calls the Gonzervatory: his own music school and all-expenses-paid residential performance workshop that culminates in a public concert in which he conducts his students. It did not seem unfitting, when I visited him late last spring at his apartment in a leafy section of Cologne, to find that he lived right off Beethovenstrasse.
Thomas Chatterton Williams:
What kind of music do you listen to at home?
I don’t listen to much music at home. But if I’m out walking or traveling, I find rap really engaging. It reminds me of reading comic books as a kid, in that there’s a lot of crossover, this rapper working with that rapper. It’s a bit like opening up a new issue of the X-Men every week for me. Go on Apple Music or DatPiff and see what new tapes are there.
You go on DatPiff?
That’s where you get some stuff that wouldn’t be on Apple Music, because it hasn’t been properly licensed. I might not listen to one of those tapes for longer than a couple of weeks, when it’s slipped from everybody’s consciousness and gets replaced by someone else’s mixtape. Rap is not the kind of music for me where there are so many classics that get added to my collection and never leave. It’s much more ephemeral. It comes and goes, like issues of a comic book.
You’re actually a pretty deft lyricist. How did you teach yourself to rap?
I never thought of it as teaching myself. When I moved to Europe—and this is for better or worse, because things have shifted now, in terms of how people talk about cultural appropriation—it was the early Aughts, and we had just sort of gotten over the political correctness of the Nineties. There was Eminem and Sacha Baron Cohen and it was okay to …
Play with another music scene?
Exactly. When I moved to Europe, I could suddenly feel free from the question of “Should I or shouldn’t I?” and I was able to just say, “Well, it seems like here in Europe, rap is seen as a musical style, and is perhaps separate from hip-hop culture.” I’m someone who always tries to see the commonalities in music. Focus on what unites humans rather than focusing on the differences. There are some fundamental things that are just natural to music itself. Or at least to Western music.
I always wondered, “What if a style of music wasn’t limited to its culture? What if a style of music wasn’t limited to its technology? What if a style of music wasn’t limited to its usual audience?”
Did you just figure out how to do it as you went along?
I was always into words. As a kid, I realized that there was something with the way rappers used words, and the playfulness and the conceptual self-actualization of the form. What inspired me the most was that rap didn’t seem to have to choose between being serious or silly, it could be both at the same time. I was always being told, as a musician, I should choose my camp. But rap could be enlightened and ignorant at the same time. It could contain all these contradictions.
But I’m very sensitive to the cultural appropriation issue now. Maybe that freedom that I felt to essentially try anything, musically speaking, and look for those commonalities, could be seen as an act of erasure, as well. I’m cognizant of that. There doesn’t seem to be any perfect answer.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Self-Portrait in Black and White and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.
Chilly Gonzales performing with the Kaiser Quartet in the Cologne Philharmonic, December 2015. Photograph by Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images.