Friday, November 30, 2007

Interview: José González

This feature appears in today's Washington Square News.

Heartening news, fellow students: If the school thing doesn't work out, you can always follow in José González's footsteps.

González broke out of his native Sweden with the release of his 2005 debut album, "Veneer." But when he realized he could not play music and maintain his studies in a doctorate program in biochemistry, he choose the guitar pick over the test tube.

This versatility translates to his music. González is often compared to the late acoustic master Nick Drake, but strangely enough, he started his musical career playing bass for hardcore bands as a teenager.

It's difficult to recognize this influence on his second album, "In Our Nature," which is based on the same sound of "Veneer" - soft acoustic guitar and hushed vocals. But González hasn't completely shed his more abrasive roots, especially lyrically. On the album's first track, "How Low," González sings the line, "Absorbed in your hustling/Feeding a monster."

"The lyrics came out similar to what I used to write in the hardcore band, this kind of angry and accusing tone," González said. His rage isn't directed at anyone in particular, as he describes parts of the album as "yelling in the air about humanity in general."

Not satisfied with catharsis, González was also influenced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion," and ethicist Peter Singer's "Practical Ethics." "I like playing with symbolism," González told British music mag NME. "On this album I've wanted to bring out the primitive aspects of human beings."

Recordings took place again in his hometown of Gothenburg, but the process evolved despite the territorial confines. "Veneer" was more or less a solo project, with only Stefan Sporsen contributing on trumpet. For the new album, González enlisted percussionist Erik Bodin and singer Yukimi Nagano, members of the band Little Dragon.

The two have also joined González on his current tour, but will miss the last four shows so they can play in their own group. Although he has years of experience playing alone, González said it is difficult to entertain an audience for more than an hour.

González keeps the audience's interest by performing other artists' songs. He covered everything from Kyle Minogue's "Hand On Your Heart" to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." After receiving positive feedback for his live cover of Massive Attack's "Teardrop," González said he felt comfortable enough to include it on his new album.

Although substituting the spacious drum machine beat for González's guitar plucks was not much of a divergence from the original, González's only fear was that the track would sound too forceful on an album characterized by restraint.

"It had almost a grunge element to it," González said.

His original success stemmed from doing covers, and had much to do with a cover of fellow Swedes and Mute labelmates the Knife, toning down the synth-pop song "Heartbeats." The track gained popularity through radio play in Sweden before it was picked up by shows like "Scrubs," "The O.C." and a Sony Bravia television commercial, a move González has mixed feelings about.

"I don't really like commercials at all," González said, but he felt the advertising move was justified "as long as it's not too controversial and it's done tastefully."

When he isn't supporting his own releases, González plays in the instrumental trio Junip, a project he plans to focus on next summer. He has also contributed to Zero 7's 2006 album "The Garden," and in what was perhaps poetic justice, the album included a denser reworking of "Crosses," which originally appeared on "Veneer." His extensive involvement in music is a testament to his commitment to the art.

"Ideally, music would just spread wildly and get to the people that are interested without invading," González said, though he added that he's still opposed to illegal downloading if it goes against the artist's wishes.

But on a more universal scale, González is an egalitarian at heart.

"I see very positive tendencies of culture and education becoming less expensive and more accessible to everyone," González said. "In the long run it would be a better world if there was more cultural exchange."

González, with his Swedish home, Argentinean roots and forays into both electronic and acoustic styles, practices what he preaches.


Thanks to Chris and José, who plays at Webster Hall on December 9th.

MP3: José González - Teadrop (Live)
MySpace: José González
Official Site: José González

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