Meet the most original guitarist you never heard of

Freestyle improviser and US indie rock hero Eugene Chadbourne brings his warped sense of pop to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Eugene Chadbourne (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eugene Chadbourne
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The beauty of contemporary music is that you don’t have to be a Lady Gaga or a Kanye West and be on the cover of magazines or featured on awards show. Luckily there’s a lot of room on the fringes for someone as obscure, eccentric and downright bizarre as Eugene Chadbourne to garner enough of a following to make a living from making music and tour around the world.
Nobody would mistake the 56-year-old balding, pudgy Chadbourne for a pop idol, or even a musician. But the highly unconventional American guitar improviser is indeed a master musician – maybe the most unique guitarist you never heard of – who for over 35 years has forged a singular style based on free form playing, avant-garde jazz, early rock & roll and rockabilly, country, and everything in between.
Fueled by sound
Jazz au naturel
Playing from the heart
“I picked up on the fact when I first started paying attention to music that what I thought was interesting wasn’t necessarily what my friends or anybody else would like. I didn’t care, though, as long as I liked it,” said the chipper Chadbourne this week, a day after arriving in Israel for three shows – Thursday and Friday nights at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv and Sunday night at Uganda in Jerusalem.
“I was always drawn to a more pure form of expression and not really caring whether anybody liked it. It’s been nice over the years, though, to realize that some people do like it.”
And like it they do, enough for a modest cult of fans and musicians to have jumped on the Eugene Chadbourne bandwagon over the years. A true ‘indie’ artist in an era in which the term is so often just another marketing ploy, Chadbourne follows no direction but his own, on his way to developing one of the music world’s most eccentric and eclectic oeuvres. Chadbourne, naturally, doesn’t consider his slipping and sliding up and down the bottleneck guitar or banjo and singing in his idiosyncratic voice to be so strange.
“When I was growing up in Boulder, Colorado , the music in the mainstream got very, very weird,” he explained. “When you consider that teenagers were spending their weekends listening to The Beatles’ White Album in full, and all the kind of far out psychedelic jams of the day – this was the popular music of the day.
“Even though pop music returned to being ‘pop music’, that period was enough to lead me to Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, modern jazz and all that. I was fortunate that Boulder had a very progressive radio station which would play all kinds of thing, with the idea of trying to educate the audience. For instance, they would play Jethro Tull and then they would play [jazz flautist] Roland Kirk to let you know where it came from. So I was sort of turned on to a lot of things – like jazz and electronic music – by this radio station.”
He recalled first noticing the guitar while listening to songs by The Rolling Stones, but really became excited about the instrument after seeing [late folksinger and Jeff Buckley’s father] Tim Buckley in concert.
“I couldn’t stop watching his guitar player Lee Underwood. The stuff he played that night really opened my mind right away, I saw what he was doing and how he was moving outside the chords,” said Chadbourne.
DESPITE HIS love of music, Chadbourne studied to be a journalist, but in the early 1970s, fled to Canada to avoid being sent to serve in Vietnam. After president Jimmy Carter declared amnesty for conscientious objectors in 1976, Chadbourne returned to the US, settling in New York City and its vibrant downtown music scene. After releasing his 1976 debut, Solo Acoustic Guitar, he fell in with a group of like-minded musicians including saxophonist John Zorn and guitarist Henry Kaiser and began collaborating on purely improvisational music.
“It wasn’t very productive. And it’s more exciting looking back on it than it was then actually living through it,” said Chadbourne.
“It was really frustrating at the time, because we couldn’t really get any kind of audience, it literally grew one person at a time.”
“We played a lot, whether anybody came or not, because we just wanted to play. He was putting on concert series in John’s apartment, so it wasn’t like having to get a booking in a club, we could just play whenever we wanted. We would have two people come by, then four. One day I realized we had 10 people,” he added with a laugh.
Still, those 10 people told others, and the Chadbourne- Zorn era entered into folklore for its experimental courage. For Chadbourne, it clarified where he wanted to go musically.
“I had a lot of ideas of what I thought I could achieve when I went to New York, in terms of getting involved with jazz and different things,” he said. “And I realized after a while that none of this was going to happen. But I had figured out what I wanted to do, that I could make my own musical world, and that’s basically what I’ve been doing ever since.”
But there was one detour along the way, a stint in the early 1980s fronting Shockabilly, a band of admittedly demented rockabilly revisionists that attracted the most attention Chadbourne had garnered to date. But the guitarist experienced a similar feeling to his New York adventure – a lot of effort and not much to show for it.
“I know we made a lot of really great music and there was an incredible amount of energy that somehow kept us going under these really horrible conditions which actually haven’t changed that much,” he said.
“You go on the road with a band now touring on a low budget in a van, and you’re basically looking at the same kind of miserable situation. We would have some days when we’d think ‘oh, this is really an improvement, because it was a nicer hotel or we made a little more money, but then it would deteriorate again. It was a real struggle, but I think that you can hear this energy in the music that we’re really fighting against it.”
VOWING TO remain a free agent following the band’s demise in 1985, Chadbourne has kept his promise over the last 25 years. He’s a serial collaborator, however, and has attracted a crop of visionary alternative artists ranging from punks to jazzmen to play with him during his career, ranging from way-out guitarists Fred Frith and Derek Bailey, to alternative pranksters Camper Van Beethoven, and former Dead Kenndy’s singer Jello Biafra, to They Might Be Giants, Violent Femmes, and Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black.
“When Shockabilly broke up and I went solo, I realized that there were bands that wanted to work with me on a kind of temporary basis on special projects. And some of those albums I did were quit successful by my terms, particularly the [1987] Vermin of the Blues album with Evan John and the H Bombs. There was song on that – “Bo Diddley is a Communist” – that was something of a cult hit in the eastern bloc. It didn’t mean I got rich or anything, but it was sort of thrilling,” said Chadbourne.
“And then my collaborations [in the late 1980s and early 1990] with Camper Van Beethoven called Camper Van Chadbourne, sold quite a few copies. I saw this as all a different way of being involved in that scene but not being tied down to a band and all those things. And I still like to do sorts of collaborations. Derek Bailey said to me one time, ‘everybody gets one chance’ I thought, well that’s a good attitude.”
Now it’s Israel’s chance, and while Chadbourne doesn’t have any specific collaborators lined up for his shows here, he doesn’t rule out connecting with some musician/fans who may turn up on stage for his oneman virtuoso performance. In fact, he admitted that he’s not sure what to expect from the local audience.
“I never know what people will recognize from my repertoire. When I first traveled to New Zealand, I thought, wow, people really know my music here. And then I started thinking, well, my records were released in England, and New Zealand is a Commonwealth country, so all those Rough Trade albums I did and the Shockabilly stuff all got through to them,” he said.
“Here in Israel, I don’t know how much my music’s been exposed so I don’t know if I’ll have people asking for songs. But, over the years though, I’ve had several people writing to me and ordering albums, so I’m expecting there’ll be some people excited to see me.”
Chadbourne, himself, is excited to be in Israel. His mother, a German Jew, fled from the Nazis in the 1930 with her parents from Berlin to the US. She eventually converted to Catholicism and Chadbourne wasn’t raised Jewish. But his heritage unexpectedly popped up when got married to a Jewish woman.
“One of my wife’s sister’s noticed that my mother seemed to know all the prayers in Hebrew – she was mouthing along with the rabbi – so there was something about her Judaism that stuck with her,” recalled Chadbourne, adding that he didn’t subscribe to any religion.
“I was initially raised Catholic, then my father became an atheist for quite a while – which was delightful for my family – because we hated church.”
That’s probably why Chadbourne began attending the church of music, and never left.