He plays Erik Satie, hip-hop and does satire on stage between songs. No wonder he has identity issues
Gonzales, real name Jason Charles Beck, is a pop Zelig. Either that or he is confused. How else to describe a techno DJ, electronic rapper and solo classical piano player, whose humorous skits onstage involve insulting his band in such a way that it teeters on that fine line between performance art and genuine rage, and whose latest album, Soft Power, pays tribute to the middle-of-the-road ballads and American TV themes that he grew up listening to in the 1980s?
Would the real Gonzales please stand up?
“It’s a secret,” says the 36-year-old Canadian-born musician who now lives in Paris, refusing to reveal which of his personae represents the “real him”. “I want to keep people guessing; it’s more interesting if you don’t know where the lie begins and the truth ends.”
Gonzales comes from an irreligious Jewish family. “They tried to shed that baggage in a misinformed move towards assimilation,” he says, adding that he feels “almost doubly Jewish because I’m Canadian, and Canadians are the new Jews because they succeed in exile. We’re passively oppressed by the American culture.”
A gifted child, he rejected most punk and indie rock for its wilful amateurism, believing that “attitude alone isn’t enough. You need mastery and showmanship. Lack of musicianship is the worst kind of underachieving fake modesty. Effort is important.”
From a young age he also resisted the clichés of music-making and performance. “I feel clichéd when I do something musical and people take it as some sort of poetic statement,” he says. “If I play piano and people are, like: ‘Wow, that was really amazing’, it makes me feel uncomfortable. Similarly, I can’t be the clichéd rapper saying: ‘Put your hands in the air’. It feels cheesy. If people put their hands in the air, I tell them: ‘No, put your hands down’.”
He regards such hypercritical self-vigilance as a cultural trait. A fan of Jewish stand-up comedian/actor Andy Kaufman, Danish classical-music comedian Victor Borges and Sacha Baron Cohen at his most iconoclastic, Gonzales admits to being interested in Jewish humour that “laughs in the face of danger, at your own flaws, your own contradictions, your own bullshit”. The great thing about Groucho Marx and Woody Allen, he contends, is that “you don’t know what part of it is the true neurosis, and what part of it is just there to entertain”. But he denies that Soft Power, full of lush synthesised melodies and sax solos, is a double-bluff exercise designed to poke fun at easy-listening or soft rock.
“I hate the whole ‘guilty pleasure’ thing,” he says. “Erik Satie or Billy Joel, it’s the same to me. I hate the idea that, if it’s played solo on the piano and sounds classical it must be good taste, and if it has a saxophone solo then it must be bad taste. To me there’s no difference.” He is equally passionate in his dismissal of the idea that music played on organic instruments is somehow more authentic than music created in the studio using keyboards and hi-tech gadgets. “That makes me vomit or laugh, or both,” he says.
Extracts of his piano music were recently used in a documentary about Hitler’s bodyguards which, he admits, somewhat shockingly, “really thrilled me, because they got the quality of sadness; the sadness of a dictator at the end of his days.” He has also heard of fans using his piano recitals as the soundtrack to everything from dish-washing to sex. “I actually think,” he smiles, “that the best use of my music is to have sex with your wife while she’s washing the dishes.”
Soft Power is released next week by Mercury/Universal