Vic Chesnutt (with Victoria Williams) tour New Zealand this July. He talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about recording his debut album Little, and being alive nearly twenty years later to tell the tale.

VIC CHESNUTT is one of the pioneering artists of the 90s, whose music has been covered by artists as big as Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins and REM. He’s recorded with Elf Power, Lambchop, Van Dyke Parks and Bill Frisell among others. Kurt Cobain popped into his house to say he was big fan. Not a bad effort for a man who almost died and was left a paraplegic after crashing while drink-driving at the age of eighteen, and whose debut album, legend has it, was recorded by REM’s Michael Stipe because Stipe didn’t think Chesnutt was going to keep himself alive for much longer. That debut album, Little, came out nearly twenty years ago – and Chesnutt has not only survived, but released twelve albums and is playing in New Zealand with the similarly revered Victoria Williams.

Chesnutt grew up in rural Georgia, and came from a musical family. “My granddad played music, country and played guitar, and so my parents tell me I was into it as a little baby.” He played music throughout school, but it was only when he moved to Athens, Georgia (where he still lives) for college that the music took off. He was in The La Di Das before embarking on solo work. “I was studying English at school and I wanted to be an English teacher. I came here to go to school and I was always very comfortable playing music. I went to a party one day and these girls there asked me to play some songs ‘cause they knew the songs and I played a couple and they said ‘man you need to play these on stage.’ So they got me a gig the next day, on Saturday and that was the beginning. Then soon Michael Stipe saw me playing and a couple of years down the road we made an album together and then the rest is wikipedia.”

Athens, Georgia is now a legendary place in terms of music history, and considered one of the key locations for American indie music. The late 70s/early 80s saw bands such as REM, Pylon, and the B-52s explode out of the city and almost define a new aesthetic, while by the 90s the first and second wave of Elephant 6 bands (Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, Of Montreal) kept up the city’s reputation. Chesnutt says “it was a bohemian enclave, starting even in the 70s, maybe as early as ’71 or something like that. You know the hippies, the hipster types would come from all over the South, definitely from all over Georgia, to go to school. And then they started going to parties, and starting bands that would go to house parties. It had a really good art school here, and it attracted a lot of super-creative people who were visionaries and who were Southern bohemians [who are a] very strange breed. They’re very different to maybe New York bohemians or maybe your upper-crust bohemians. It’s a super-cool scene that was started here. When I moved here in the early 80s, REM – they hadn’t signed to a major label yet – but they were already huge in our eyes and they were going all over the States and they were kind of a cult band. There were 37 bands here. Probably by the time I made my fourth album, 1994, there were probably 3000 bands here. Now I don’t know, there’s a million bands, I really don’t know. I don’t think there’s a supercomputer large enough to calculate the number of bands in this town.”

Chesnutt’s debut album Little was recorded in 24 hours, and was produced by Michael Stipe. It’s a haunting, spare record, and was lo-fi before lo-fi was a label. Chesnutt says however that Little was “recorded in the best studio in town. My first record, and my whole musical vision was all wrapped up in the title of my first album, Little. I thought me with an acoustic guitar singing, no amp or anything, this was punk rock. I was going against the dance-y bands, or whatever, even the punk rock banks which I listened to and loved. I was opening for all the punk rock bands in town, I was going on tour with them and to me it was the kind of thing, I was kind of an iconoclast in a way. I thought I was revolutionary, even though singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen. And I didn’t particularly dig singer-songwriters at all. I really did not dig singer-songwriters at the time.”

From there Chesnutt assembled the barebones of a band, including his wife on bass. “We thought we were the quietest band on earth and that was revolutionary to me. I thought it was really great to play super-quiet and we rehearsed in my living room with no amp and no PA so we had to play quiet enough so we could hear my voice without a PA. One day, we were putting together a cover band and we were working on a Play One show, and we doing a bunch of covers and my friend brought over this distortion pedal, and he left it in my house, and I plugged my acoustic guitar into the distortion pedal and it was like ‘woooaahh, hello, ok this is the end of that. I’m going to use distortion now.’ I was a big fan of Giant Sand so the Giant Sand-y kind of quiet/loud thing got into me.”

I ask how Chesnutt views his earlier work, especially given the state of mind that he was in appears to be quite different to what he’s like now. “Sometimes I find it amazing that I could come up with that at such a young age. I was very provincial at the time, I’d never gone anywhere. I grew up in rural Georgia, and some of those songs I can’t believe I thought of them. A lot of the songs are very rural landscapes and I love that stuff. I think it’s beautiful. I still play it. I know when I come to New Zealand, I’ve never been before which is insane, so I know I’m going to be playing all my old stuff there.”

“I really never expected time to march on for me, I can tell you right now. Neither did most of those other people. I guarantee you Michael Stipe in 1988 did not think I would be a 45-year-old man. I can tell you right now. The way I was living back then, nobody on earth would have ever have predicted that I’d be a 45-year-old man.”

Audiences were given the chance to revaluate Chesnutt’s first four albums (Little, West of Rome, Drunk and Is the Actor Happy?) which were originally released on the Texas Hotel Records when they were reissued in 2004. Chesnutt too, was forced to listen to himself again. “I don’t listen to me. The day I get back the master, it’s the last day I ever hear those songs. I don’t even listen to the album when it comes out. I was thrilled by the reissue. I couldn’t believe how great it sounded. Even Little, there’s a lot of low-end on that guitar, I was really proud of that guitar sound. I was like ‘wow, my guitar sounds great for a really destroyed guitar that it was, it was really great’. And the songs were cool, the outtakes were great. It was really fun to go through and find all those outtakes for those four albums. I’m really super-proud of those. I’m really, really proud of those.” The reissues, which includes commentary from the likes of Michael Stipe and Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) also reminded Chesnutt of the influence he has had. “I didn’t really realise at the time. Kurt Cobain came to my house to tell me that he was a fan at the time, but it really didn’t strike me. But now looking back, and hearing all these bands that are huge and changed the world, it’s a funny, funny thing. It makes me feel good. Because, sometimes I get depressed.”

Chesnutt is a prolific writer and has written a considerable amount of songs. For example, he wrote sixty demos for his album Silver Lake. “I’m not a perfectionist. I’m not at all. I write a lot of songs. I’m a prolific editor. I’m always editing.” But despite this (or perhaps because of this), Chesnutt has collaborated with an amazing collection of musicians. 2008 saw the release of Dark Developments which was a collaboration with Elf Power. “Andrew [Rieger, Elf Power’s vocalist] asked me to sing on his album and I did that. And then he was like ‘we should do some jamming together’ and we ended up making a record together in my attic. We toured together, and it’s great. I love them – they’re a great band.”

Chesnutt finds the collaboration process particularly energising. “I’ve said this before, and I know it sounds funny – I don’t want it to sound pathetic – but it is a lonely process writing songs for me. It’s hatched out in my little room. Hotel rooms. Myself. It’s a thing all in my head. It’s a really joyous thing to join in this exuberant experience of playing with a bunch of other people. You have someone like Van Dyke Parks, or Bill Frisell, or T-Bone Burnett, or Lambchop or Elf Power or Fugazi these are amazing – or Widespread Panic – it’s a really exuberant thing. Also, it’s really a great creative endeavour to sculpt my songs into these various shapes with different bands, and I love it. I love playing with musicians, I get challenged by that, my guitar playing changes, my singing changes.”

Chesnutt was also the subject of a tribute album in 1996, Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, an interesting feat for an artist who was still early on in his career (he had only released four albums by then). The driving force was Victoria Williams, with whom Chesnutt is playing in New Zealand. Chesnutt is effusive in his praise of Williams, whom he has known for years. “We became instant, fast friends. And it’s funny, she’s the light, and I’m the dark. We’re very different in tones and in music. We have so much common, personality wise, in many ways. I think she’s one of the greatest songwriters, a really super raw talent. I’ve seen her making up songs off the top of her head when I was just like ‘oh my god, people can do that’. She’s an inspiration for me.” The charity album resulted from this friendship, and the purpose of Sweet Relief was to assist professional artists with health care. “It came time for a second Sweet Relief album, and Victoria said ‘why don’t we use yours?’ And I mean a lot of it had to do with I had a lot of famous friends who were big supporters of mine. So it seemed natural that we could get these people to cover my songs.” And, the album features covers of Chesnutt’s songs by the likes of Madonna, The Smashing Pumpkins, REM, Hootie and the Blowfish, Kristin Hersh and Sparklehorse. “That was insane. And it was a big shot in the arm. It was funny at that time, because you say it was early in my career – to me, it felt like I had been around forever. My first album was recorded in 1988, and that was around 1995 or something like that. I had just signed to Capitol Records, so it seemed like I was a veteran. I had toured around a lot, Europe a few times, so little did I know that time would keep marching on.”

Furthermore, Chesnutt did not actually think he would ever make it this far. He led what could euphemistically be called a self-destructive lifestyle. His behaviour even led the great poet Allen Ginsberg to call him an idiot. “That was one of the greatest moments in my life, really and truly, it was a great, great moment.” Chesnutt, in some respects has survived, and he seems particularly grateful he’s still here. “I really never expected time to march on for me, I can tell you right now. Neither did most of those other people. I guarantee you Michael Stipe in 1988 did not think I would be a 45-year-old man. I can tell you right now. The way I was living back then, nobody on earth would have ever have predicted that I’d be a 45-year-old man.”