Eugene Chadbourne Sustains a One-of-a-Kind Musical Career

In most creative and professional pursuits there are benchmarks of progress. Composer, collaborator, and multi-instrumentalist Eugene Chadbourne makes truly unique music: highly improvised, often technically daring, and surprisingly rich in humor and expressions of social conscience. He got good at it early, first recording in the mid-1970s, and continues to seemingly invent sounds with ease and present them in creative combinations. There are other musicians with whom he and his career have certain elements in common, and with whom he has worked, such as John Zorn, Derek Bailey, They Might Be Giants, and Han Bennink. But no one else has fashioned the kind of homespun, anti-marketed success that Chadbourne has been able to sustain. And just as Chadbourne has spent a lifetime imagining a distinctive music, he has led those who encounter that music to imagine alternative definitions of success and superlative.

"Mainly I would say the challenge has been to throw off the perpetual influence of both the commercial music scene and the overbearing arts scene," Chadbourne says by e-mail. (He's touring Croatia and Italy as this issue comes together.)

"A big pressure in the arts scene is ‘projects,'" Chadbourne says. "I have developed a philosophy I call anti-projects. What I am interested in is the most common type of live performance I do, basically because I have never been successful enough to go well beyond the most common, low-rent, low-budget, bottom-of-the-pit events. But in each of these performances I both present and develop my craft of guitar, banjo, singing, composition in both music and text, and of course there is a huge amount of improvisation involved in the presentation. Rather than being some kind of route one is taking to a golden paradise, this is the paradise."

If you've heard him perform or even on recording, you know that Chadbourne is one of the few people who can credibly defend that sort of "the journey is the destination" philosophy. There is the tendency to think of completed songs and compositions as objects, rigid and artifact. Not for Chadbourne. Whether he's approaching one of his own pieces or some Phil Ochs folkie lament, the song is the starting point—and it could lead anywhere. To hear John Coltrane's extended saxophone exploration "Ascension" performed on banjo is to appreciate the music, the musician, and the instrument anew. If you have not had that pleasure, you may be awhile waiting. Chadbourne says that lately he is his own greatest source of cover material.

"John Coltrane was a huge influence in improvising with pre-existing songs and taking them way out, i.e. ‘My Favorite Things,'" he says. "But since last year I have been basically concentrating on my catalog of original songs beginning with the instrumentals recorded on Volume One: Solo Acoustic Guitar Volume One in 1975 and going through the Shockabilly and ‘band collaboration' years—Camper Van Chadbourne. I had been thinking about turning away from all the covers for quite some time and it may have been seeing that my pal Noel Akchote was doing a Kylie Minogue project that made me finally realize once and for all that there are so many tributes and so forth type of things going that the music scene does not need me anymore to push these ideas.

"When I started doing a mix of free jazz and country-and-western, this type of juxtaposition was unheard of and critics felt they had to explain it as ‘deconstruction' or some other kind of nonsense. The listening audience now is used to this type of activity, however, and I really feel I need to devote myself to performing the original works I have created. Otherwise they will be forgotten. In fact, I forgot many of them myself and have had to relearn them, which is harder then learning a Phil Ochs song, for instance, because there are books out of them. That is the ultimate goal, to put out both a guitar and banjo book of my songs. I have been working on that with my youngest daughter Lizzie's help since last summer."