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Vic Chesnutt
 by Martin Williams / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Vic Chesnutt by Paul HeartfieldGreat. That's fantastic. Fantastic. Someone's happy anyway. Fantastic. I just regaled Vic Chesnutt with a story about a fight breaking out at a Nina Simone show in London. Fan-tas-tic. He seems pleased by it.

Fans... I always think it's a good show if somebody gets beat up at my show, and it happens more than I'd like to admit. Well, no, I'd like to admit it. You know, with people talking and somebody says 'shut up'. They don't and then a fight breaks out. It happens all the time.

I suggest to him that this stems from some kind of looney affection for the performer.
Yeah, but to me it seems like some sort of arrogance in a way too. People feel empowered by this person to the point that it spills over into delusions or something. I saw Patti Smith recently in Atlanta and these obnoxious people just kept screaming the whole time, 'we love you Patti!' Right in the middle of a quiet, beautiful song. I know it's because they love her, they did love Patti. You wouldn't pay twenty dollars to go see someone if you didn't love them. But you could tell that visibly, you know, Patti was getting pissed off. And it certainly pissed off the rest of the audience We wanted to hear the songs, we didn't want to hear these assholes screaming. I was like, 'I'm gonna fucking kill you, you stupid fuck. Shut the fuck up. You're going to be dead in five minutes if you don't shut the fuck up.'

Nobody had the chutzpah to take a swipe at them?
No, but there was someone standing right behind me that kept yelling and screaming and I just turned around and said, 'can you shut the fuck up?!' And they were like, 'what?' And I said, 'go the fuck away from me! You're fucking drunk. Go the fuck away. Every time you yell your saliva is flying out of your mouth and landing on me. It's obnoxious. Go the fuck away, I'm trying to watch Patti!' And she actually did leave. She got so angry at me, I guess, that she left. I didn't care if she thought I was an asshole.

My first contact with the man they call Vic Chesnutt had been a couple of months earlier. In a film review I had quoted his paradoxical aphorism from the sleevenotes of About To Choke: 'through death, life is nourished,' and I sheepishly mailed the review on to him in Athens. Do you get unsolicited crap like that a lot?
I get stuff sent through the post, yeah. But that was quite nice though, I liked that. Thanks for the quote.

Were you ever in a similar position of fandom yourself?
I've always been a fan, but I'm always too scared to contact people, I don't know why. I started to write fan mail before. I just saw a play in New York and I got the guys to sign my playbill.

The play was called Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Vic is positively evangelic:
I'm sure you'll be hearing about it in the future. They'll make a major motion picture out of it. It'll just be huge.

And you can sell your playbill for inflated dollars.
Yesss. Yes yes yes yes yes! And I got Lucinda Williams, years ago, to sign a bottle that I had, a water bottle.

The Salesman and Bernadette, Chesnutt's sixth album, was certainly his most varied and considered. Recorded with chamber Country collective Lambchop in their native Nashville, the resulting 'song novella' is every inch a product of collaboration. Lambchop fleshed out Chesnutt's garrulous songs with their stoney-faced soul, leaving Chesnutt free to fully en-un-ci-ate his florid words and deliver some of his best vocals. Were the songs written with Lambchop in mind?
I wrote half of the songs on the record with them in mind, knowing their dynamic, knowing their make up, thinking, 'okay, here's where the horns can play,' that kind of thing. I also arranged a kind of storyline of the record with them in mind and we recorded it in order: first song first, last song last, in order. Just so we'd know how it was fitting together from the beginning.

Do you see your albums as a natural progression, from Little which was very much raw and solo to where you are now?
Well, yeah, I mean Little was solo, completely, just me sitting around in an afternoon. And [The Salesman And Bernadette] was something I'd always wanted to do. Little would have been [the same] way if I had thought about it, I guess. I didn't really think about Little, you know, it just kind of happened. If I'd have had the chance to bring friends in I would've. It was fun to have it in my head, 'ooh, Lambchop is going to play this,' and then to have them actually playing it, it was very interesting.
Even though Chesnutt's own novel-writing makes slow progress - "I'll go back in and open it up, write another word or add another couple of lines onto it" - the eccentric, verbose snapshots contained in his songs flow at an enviable rate. Does he write more than gets released?
I've got ten albums worth right now ready to go. That's why it's always hard to make a new record. [Adopts pained voice] 'What do I record now, which ones?' And that's why this record ended up being sort of a novella or something, in my mind, not in anybody else's but in my mind each song is a chapter because that was my device for how to figure out which songs of all of the hundred songs that I had ready to go for this record. So I had to have a game.

After his impromptu Stipe-cajoled debut album and the abortive Lambchop sessions that made up their contribution to 1996's Is The Actor Happy, as well as the unforeseen domestic discord that formed the backdrop to the hastily recorded Drunk, Chesnutt's career seems to be as much a confluence of circumstances and accidents as it is the product of drive or aspiration.
I only started doing it because people were saying, 'your songs are great, you gotta go play shows,' he agrees.
Before that he had fulfilled horn duties in a school band. Was this a Led-Zeppelin-covers-at-the-prom thing?
Well, not Led Zeppelin, a little more mainstream. Bob Seger, '70's icons, rock'n'roll, y'know, soul songs of the 60's and 70's, Kool and the Gang things. I didn't like it. I mean, I love to play, I was playing in bars and making great money at it, but Leonard Cohen, the Velvet Underground, the Beatles and Bob Dylan is what I listened to.

It was with 'a bunch of my buddies from out in the country' that he would later form the La-Di-Das.
We broke up after a couple of years because I wanted to go solo again, I thought my songs would have more impact or something. A lot of my friends would sit around and fantasise all the time about what they would do if they were talking to journalists. Ten years before I ever talked to a journalist my buddies in the La-Di-Das had their whole careers planned out.

Never one to plan or overstate matters, did Chesnutt go along with these fantasies?
Oh no, I always thought we sucked and I sucked, you know, I still do. I wish I was Nina Simone, she's fucking talented. She's talented.

CWAS #5 - Summer 2000