An Interview with Eugene Chadbourne

How to describe the output of maverick musician Eugene Chadbourne? In the words of a Minutemen song he covered on one of his many collaborative projects, ‘a peek at the wholeness / it’s way too big!’ Chadbourne has appeared on over 380 albums, collaborating with a host of musicians as diverse as Camper van Beethoven, Hifiklub and Derek Bailey. He once described what is still one of his best-known albums, There’ll be No Tears Tonight as ‘free improvised country and western be-bop’. His interest in country and western attracted ridicule from his free improv collaborators, but, in fact, his compelling, genre-fluid style has earned him a substantial following over the last forty years. He is perhaps best-known to the general public for fronting the band Shockabilly in the 1980s but – brilliant though that was – there’s a lot more to Doc Chad than that.

I messaged him to ask if he was prepared to take part in an interview. He was.

DR: Any idea when you might tour Europe again?

EC: I don’t have another European tour planned right now, I think the next one I will work on will be in the UK. I will have a date at Cafe Oto in London sometime April-May 2024 and will put a whole UK tour together around that!

DR: How did it all start?

EC: There was a group of neighbourhood kids wanting to form garage bands, this was already in the sixth grade of elementary school so we were 12 years old, not quite teenagers. The next year we were in the junior high school or what they call middle school now and that was a larger school with an influx of other possible musicians from other neighbourhoods. But hardly anyone knew how to play anything! I first learned the song Steppin’ Stone which has like three notes in the lead guitar part, then my friends thought we were ready to form a band.

DR: Back then, were there any signs then of the maverick direction you’d take later?

EC: There was a maverick direction on the top 40 radio at that time, so going in such a direction was actually kind of conformist….at least, it was typical.

Growing up in Boulder Colorado I had a lot of musical heroes that were in the neighbourhood, the older musicians and the local bands….this was a flesh and blood contact, otherwise you’re staring at album covers.

Once I learned a few things on guitar, I wrote my own songs, figured how to play the blues bottleneck or slide style well ahead of the local crowd; then I became a little hero in my own group of friends, they championed me. I dreamed of being able to make an impression on local musicians such as Tommy Bolin, he was one of the most famous guitarists from Boulder. This led me to try out all kinds of things, just the process of imitating people accomplished that.

By the time we get to There’ll be Bo Tears Tonight I was not looking for inspiration from rock anymore. I thought about prepared guitar because of John Cage primarily and I worked on solo guitar pieces thinking about Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell.

DR: One reason I was interested in how you started out was that you’ve talked about playing classical music and are obviously interested in Bach, having adapted one of his Partitas for the banjo. I get the feeling that what we get to hear is the tip of the Chadbourne musical iceberg. How did you get interested in these composers and what other music do you listen to or practise, just for your own pleasure, or to develop technique for other things? And how do you practise for free improv?

EC: I picked up from the older jazz guys that sight reading – anything – was good. Well, you can’t practice for free improvisation, in fact I would question the concept of practising FOR anything. I put it the other way around, practising I love so much more than performances, I don’t practice for the performances, I organize the performances so my lifestyle will include practising as a discipline. I accumulate a lot of sheet music – Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mozart, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – lots of Messiaen, I always practice Messiaen no matter what else is in the pile. Charles Ives piano pieces. Piano pieces are a great challenge for the guitar.

In my religion of music the more of this you do the better, the more you can make use of it in some positive way to enhance playing. The danger might be over-doing it: then it is like the way the banjoist Pat Cloud described his distaste with an overly show-offy banjo solo someone was playing at an event: “Too hip.”

One of my musical associates from the area, Carrie Shull, is a classical oboist. A few years ago I put together an Erik Satie birthday concert and one of the things I did was put together a cut up arrangement of a bunch of lesser known passages from piano pieces….with her and a vibraphonist, no rehearsal, just sight reading, I remember as it was going well she looked at me and whispered “I love sight reading!”

DR: If you had to choose a handful of CDs to represent what you do – say seven – what would they be?

EC: I can tell you what journalists and/or fans usually pick and augment with what I would do which would always be whatever has been created most recently:

1. Volume Two Solo Acoustic Guitar 2. English Channel (but cd version, not LP) 3. There’ll be No Tears Tonight 4. Vermin of the Blues 5. Country Music in the World of Islam. 6. Three Characters 7. Rockin’ in the Freiburg.

I also really like the outcome of Horror Part 15: The Odyssey.

DR: And then there’s your collaboration with Anthony Braxton from a few years back, Duo (Improv) 2017. Eight one-hour improv sessions (plus bonus track!). Your relationship with Braxton goes back a long way. Could you tell us a bit about that and, especially, these quite special recent recordings?

I met Braxton the first time when I organized a concert for him at the student union in Calgary, solo saxophone. I have to say this solo saxophone music of his was a huge influence on my early solo guitar works. Later I guess I influenced him or he would never have ended up doing a CD including Simon and Garfunkel songs.

When he arrived in Calgary, his host in Toronto, Bill Smith of Coda magazine, had apparently played him a tape of my recent (at that time) solo concert in Toronto, which was one of the first ones I ever performed, maybe the first. This would have been in 1975. He was really impressed and convinced me quickly I had to put out my own record and move back to the east coast to become part of the music scene, otherwise nothing would ever happen for me. He talked a lot about how he wanted to play with me including putting me in his quartet.

When I did move to NYC I realized he talked to many people in this way, he is a very encouraging gent and probably would follow through on all these desires if the time and opportunities actually existed. Over the years I would run into him at festivals and so forth, it was always the same: he wanted to play with me and record.

One afternoon hanging out with Derek Bailey in London we got to talking and Derek expressed incredible frustration with this: duo offers would come in and he would be unable to even communicate with Anthony. He told me in typical cynical Derek fashion that his solution, expressed in a postcard he mailed to Anthony, was that at a certain indicated time and date he would play a solo and if Anthony also wanted to do that it would be their duo playing together again!

My wife and I went to see Braxton do an incredible sextet performance at SECCA, the South East Center for Contemporary Art in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He invited us backstage and again expressed his desire to record, this time indicating the trumpeter/band manager associate Taylor Ho Bynum would contact me. Despite Taylor’s announcement of his limited interest in using the internet – posted, of course, as a diatribe on the internet itself – I was contacted and actual dates set up to come record in New Haven for a week. When I asked what Anthony wanted to do I was surprised and somewhat intimidated that his interest was “kicking it out, two one hour sessions each day, old school free improvisation!”

Wow, well we packed lots of instruments in the car and drove up there and after initial nervousness was surmounted I realized we would have a very easy time playing together, which you can hear. He used an hourglass to time the sessions.

One session after lunch one day seemed to be winding on forever though. Finally my wife burst into the recording room and said “You have been playing for 80 minutes, I told them you would have to stop or you would both collapse.” That is the source of that extra track. The sand had apparently gotten gummed up in the hourglass. I said “I bet Dorothy wished that had happened in the Wizard of Oz.”

I haven’t seen Anthony since then but am looking forward to the next encounter. My friend Jessica Pavone sometimes tells me what he is up to: she has been involved in his recent opera performances for instance.

DR: You mentioned Cage and Ives earlier. I’ve often wondered why America has been such a real breeding-ground for maverick musicians. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it is the same for everywhere you go on the planet. I remember being taken way out in the desert in Arizona and there was some weirdo with percussion all over his house….but it reminded me of a story an Israeli musician told me: there was one interesting old man who lived in the desert out toward Jordan and he had all the FMP and Incus sides, this was where all the young freaks went to hear far out music. For sure there are certain parts of the world where this sort of endeavor has business implications: I can go out for a few months and play weird guitar solos and have money for the whole year’s mortgage. But when people ask me about where I have traveled, it is always places where it is possible in some way to make a buck off my music, where there is a bar or somewhere where people will pay and treat it like a concert event. Once that is not part of the culture I can only travel as a tourist and I hardly ever do that. We went for a few years to a remote Mexican island in the winter with the idea of doing “sweet fuck all” as my brother in law calls it but it made me a little nuts; of course, I wound up getting up super early and sight reading Stravinsky on the balcony.

DR: When you were working on There’ll be no Tears Tonight you had to endure teasing from some quarters over your interest in country music. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like making it?

EC: It reminded me of high school with people talking behind your back about how stupid what you are doing is, but that mood had already been established by the conflict with the older jazz musicians about heroin: that reminded me of the older boys pushing us to drink alcohol before football games. Looking back on what happened with that album, it is pretty amazing. It is sheer proof one should do whatever one wants and “to hell with the neighbours” as my father liked to say. I have lost track of how many times it has been re-pressed…it is presently on its third license, now to Corbett & Dempsey. It is in the permanent library of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. It led to the idea of a combo on the road and everything that came after that, The Chadbournes, Shockabilly, all the collaborative albums with different bands. Within six months of its release despite most of our gigs being ridiculously unsuccessful, I picked up that there was a crowd of people out there that now acknowledged me as an innovator in my own right, not just another Derek Bailey wannabe but someone for the first time combining that kind of music and hard core country and western with all its sentimentality, humour….one music that seems to always be about absolutely nothing and another that always is about something that has happened, usually not pleasant.

I could not make the album all at once, it was a matter of perfecting each aspect of the material, I went in and did the solo Paycheck medley in one take because I had practised it like mad. With the combo we worked on Honey Don’t, Dang Me and Swingin’ Doors in a kind of detail that would not be possible once we were playing full shows – sometimes even three sets! – on the road and needed dozens of titles under our belt. But it was very carefully organized where the improv parts would be and how it would work. The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me was a spontaneous decision: we sight-read it out of the Roger Miller book and on the record you can hear the engineer stop me because I played a bass note directly on the fret and made it buzz…intentionally….Zorn yells “He did that on purpose! Don’t stop the tape!”

I went in after that with an ensemble including two violins, Polly Bradfield and Jim Katzin and Andrea Centazzo on a huge drum set. I had an arrangement of Stand By Your Man involving the vocal going through a ham radio mike….well it broke when we got to the studio so I had to try and replicate the effect with a normal mike, at that point I was not so comfortable singing that song, but it had been an anthem….Toshinori Kondo and I closed out each of our sets at the Free Music Festival in Berlin with the tune, because the Feminist Improvising Group always came after us. Anyway this session with the violins and Centazzo was a disaster, bombastic and none of the charm of the original song, nothing to recommend it. We were there in the studio trying to cut out the worst parts and make something from it and it was like one of those situations where there was nothing left. Recently I got a cassette from David Licht in which I had included some parts of that session and I still thought it was horrid.

So still with a not quite long enough LP, I ended up doing the sessions in Greensboro with Licht, Scott Manring, another Licht brother (Dennis) on conga, Robbie Link on upright bass. That was a much straighter approach: they were all guys that had played country and western in local bars in North Carolina. But they were all happy to get some freaky stuff happening too. We did Window Shopping, Jealous Loving Heart. My Heart Would Know I removed from one of the reissues because the vocal was shitty, this is something one gets to do when one owns the means of production. I am not sure if it was ever reinstated. As far as my vocals go, this album would be described as “early days” if it was a British police investigation on the telly.

Later on the LP appeared in extended versions. For the CD I added a long, extremely wild dobro solo I recorded on the way home from the Greensboro sessions at the Richmond Artists Workshop. This was a super vivid reel-to-reel recording. The dobro actually imploded during the performance: the resonator collapsed so the bridge was underwater….So it turned into a noise fest but it was held together by a Freddy Cannon cover, Palisades Park, and Conway Twitty’s Hello Darlin’.

It has also made sense to add at least one track, maybe more, from a live set done with the same musicians at the old Jot Em Down bar on Market Street. I have a beautiful memory of taking the bus down from Greensboro, that took about 8-10 hours. It arrived at the depot on Eugene Street and it was only a few blocks to the Jot Em Down: I got off the bus with the guitar and walked over there and before long was playing these extended country pieces…Set Up Two Glasses Joe had a really great feel and got mastered with the hokey echo from a sound-on-sound machine.

DR: I particularly like 3 Characters, the collaboration you did with the Sunwatchers (Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing is one of my favourites). Could you tell us a bit about how that came about and about the three characters of the title? You’re obviously a great admirer of the Minutemen. Could you say a bit about that, and working with Mike Watt, the Minutemen bassist?

EC: This was all Jim McHugh and the Sunwatchers, they suggested it and made it happen. ‘Three Characters’ was a concept about opera I happened to read about while we were up there, as the program developed from Minutemen plus one Henry Flynt song to also including Doug Sahm and his irresistible catalogue….so three characters…D Boon, Doug Sahm, Henry Flynt.

Jim got Watt to do the narrations. Watt is a guy I frequently email with and have had some super fine conversations with on the road but I still have not worked on anything with him. We had some plans in early April 2020 after I inaugurated a new venue in San Pedro but that very week the covid really exploded: it was the beginning with all the misinformation about touching surfaces and washing grocery bags and basically all plans got put on hold and I limped home.

DR: Listening to your version of the Minutemen’s The Price of Paradise (on 3 Characters) it strikes me how English musicians have had it easy. When they sing about war they’re just singing about ideas – their government never tried to force them to fight. Songs like the The Price of Paradise are so much more poignant than, say, The Clash’s The Call Up.

EC: I suppose involvement with Iraq [in the UK] was more on the volunteer side? But in the first and second world wars there was this whole push in the society to send your son off to war and then watch them get sacrificed. The newspapers were really into it, second only to scandals involving showgirls. Apparently there was a ban on my Corpses of Foreign War album on the BBC because they thought the title was offensive.

I am not as familiar with the Clash material as I guess I ought to be. Even amongst the most famous protest songwriters – Ochs, Dylan – it would be hard to find a song as poignant as Price of Paradise. D Boon [of the Minutemen] was a particularly sensitive individual and was singing about his brother’s involvement in the war he detested [Vietnam], but without putting his brother down:”a hero who survived” …it is really a deep song.

During the interview, Chadbourne has to fly to Germany, where he’s performing with Schroeder in the annual Zappanale festival. We continue once he arrives there.

DR: Now you’re in Germany, could you tell us what it’s like being Doc Chad on tour?

EC: A drummer friend of mine was telling me why it was so hard for him to tour, he said he can’t figure out how to “do it” meaning specifically how not to stay out all night drinking and then have it together for the next morning, whatever is required.

Aki Takase said to me once she was proud of “her boys” (the band) as after three days in a row of really early morning departures, “not a boy complained”; so I said to her when I have a 5am alarm after working the night before, that is when I can tell myself I am a professional musician. I feel good about that and so don’t complain.

As for what it is like, Jon Rose once described being on tour with me like being on tour with a shoe salesman. He meant during the day I would be scouting out indie shops in all the towns and selling them stuff. Well most of that business is gone now so I have to occupy myself some other way.

I am able to “do it” for so many years because I don’t drink alcohol beyond perhaps one celebratory drink and I hate socializing. Normally after a tour is over I don’t want to leave my house or talk to anyone other than my wife and kids for weeks. This thing particularly European musicians do where they sit in cafes or bars or restaurants until the waiters start scowling and hanging the chairs up on other tables drives me crazy. Sometimes it is such a relief not to understand what the fuck they are talking about, other times it just adds to the boredom. So I save most of the energy for the performance, then I really pour it on, otherwise an exciting event on tour is getting to buy a toothbrush.

DR: Going back to the albums you mentioned earlier, I look forward to listening to Horror Part 15. An album based on Homer took me by surprise. Where did the idea come from? You say you liked the outcome. Does that mean the getting there – as with The Odyssey itself – was a bit of an ordeal?

EC: Hah hah, well the Horror series is an ongoing thing with tributes to specific monsters, film-makers….anything appropriate.

The Italian percussionist/winemaker/fisherman Marcello Delbosco began collaborating on this series and the Odyssey came up in discussions about various filmed versions of the epic…Kirk Douglas vs. the Cyclops…Marcello was particularly enamoured with the Italian TV version he saw as a child. It is available on YouTube but I haven’t watched it all.

The process involved getting a bunch of material from players I really like – John Zorn, Dan Clucas, Jamison Williams – and then utilizing the multitracking ability of the computer utilizing the Audacity software. But absolutely no ordeal, all of this is fun for me and I am always sad when it is finished and I don’t get to fuck around with it anymore.

DR: Can you tell us a bit about the other recent album you mentioned, Rockin’ in the Freiburg?

EC: This is part of a longstanding relationship with drummer Schroeder and the bassist Jan Fitsjen and so far this trio has worked only in Freiburg or close-by such as Basel, Lucerne, Bern, but we really enjoy playing together and Jan always arranges excellent live recordings as well. In this case Schroeder and I returned to Freiburg last March after a long run of gigs: we were more than warmed up! We devised a nice instrumentation of drums, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass/baritone guitar for the trio which is the kind of thing one can only pull off with a good sound-system/recording set up. Came up with a really good live recording….and that is Rockin’ in the Freiburg, and with the system I use to quickly (with Jan’s help) mix and master, the CD was available only a few days after the show.

DR: Do you read much? Who are your favourite authors?

EC: I used to read voraciously and when last doing that was reading everything I could find by these Arab writers, the Egyptian Mahfouz and the lesser known Munif who wrote an incredible trilogy about a country based on Saudi Arabia. I started writing my own book Dreamory and that kind of took over from reading anything else.

DR: Looking at your paintings of birds and given your interest in Messiaen – not to mention your album covers – it looks like the art and the music flow into each other.

EC: I suppose, but another way to look at it is the absolute shit I am presented with sometimes when other people design covers, I might as well do it myself. One of my daughters bought a bunch of my LPs second-hand in Baltimore and the guy says “Oh you must like Eugene Chadbourne!” and she said “That’s my dad!” and they said “Oh tell him we hate his music but we love his album covers.”

DR: You were talking about ‘the means of production’. You’ve produced so much of your music yourself: playing, recording, packaging, marketing, Could you say a bit more about that process?

EC: It is really very simple, if you want to perform, record and release music you have to be willing (first) and hopefully inspired to control as much of the process as possible… Everyone else that gets involved will not be as committed and/or will just want to take money out of your pocket.

DR: Your music has often been overtly political. Can you say something about any experiences that shaped your politics? Do you think music can change minds?

EC: I tended to think it was overblown to think music changed minds until I went to Israel and a young musician told me about how the music of the 60s convinced him to fuck off rather than join the army. For me it was seeing Phil Ochs perform. The combination of sentiment and humor really moved the audience…in the tensest of times…I remember thinking “I want to be able to do that.”

DR: I’m ashamed to say I’ve not signed up to Head of Books yet! Could I please? And could you say a bit about it?

EC: You are now on the list and have been receiving hopefully. This began during covid, I had no idea how long it would go on and was used to having much of my musical creative output tied into touring and associated recording projects. The Small Business Administration helped me stay afloat and gave me money to invest in my business. The challenge was how to continue to create prolifically and what to do with it? There was an initial burst of buying sprees as people stuck in their houses began listening to the box sets they bought years ago and thought about what other material they might want. But obviously that could not continue any longer. I wondered about what it would be like to have a subscription series but [went for] something that would be done every day: I was interested in building up an inventory of solos that would also be used as individual parts of a guitar orchestra.

The first results of that process, by the way, will be released very shortly on the Weird Cry label, a three CD set of guitar orchestrations entitled I Looked Like a Hippie.

It was important that the series not cost money to produce as I was unsure how much would come in as contributions from subscribers. So basically the expense is $12 a monthly for a We Transfer pro account which also gets used for all kinds of things. One very regular Italian subscriber more than pays for this and in the beginning I got some very large contributions, not so much these days but I never know when someone just decides to put money in my mailbox, that is nice. It is also limited to instrumentals to avoid the whole syndrome of people requesting songs or dealing with copyright material. It is “free use” as I was interested to see how other players might utilize the solos, this part is more difficult as this is not ABC follow the dots type easy going but pretty challenging stuff. There have been some tracks created by Frank Pahl, Quentin Roellet, Larry Boothroyd of Victims Family and a particularly cool Guinevere from Schroeder.

DR: Could you tell us about what you’re going to be working on next?

EC: For the future I am working on another collection of guitar orchestrations, this one for the Horror Series, volume 19 the Curse of DeSantis in order to insult the horrid governor of Florida and “anti-woke” presidential candidate. He really is a scumbag.


Eugene Chadbourne’s homepage, where you can access the shop, a decade-by-decade discography (complete with album covers and some sound files), the latest news and more:

Horror Part 15: The Odyssey and Rockin’ in the Freiburg:

Anthony Braxton and Eugene Chadbourne: Duo Improv (2017):

Eugene Chadbourne’s book, Dreamory:

Eugene Chadbourne’s Head of Books, where you can sign up for a daily guitar solo to be emailed to you:

A brief biography of Eugene Chadbourne:

Eugene Chadbourne’s Bandcamp page:

Dominic Rivron

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