Chester French Biography
Chester French's world is a musical universe in which everything's in play. The glorious "She Loves Everybody" mixes sensibilities equally drawing on Motown and power-pop. "Beneath the Veil" throws country twists into hip-hop aesthetics. "Neal" has echoes of swing, hip-hop and rock – with a guitar break paying tribute to the genius and magic fingers of Les Paul. And "Fingers" is just your basic orchestral-pop with, you know, a lap steel solo. There's a curtain-raising "Introduction," and a couple transition pieces ("The String Interlude" and "Country Interlude") to help tie it all together and stress that this is, overall, far more than just a collection of songs, but a whole statement.
"We were trying to make the album an album," Drummey says. "What we tried to do is make something musically diverse but also unified. And we did the best job of that ever in the history of music."
Don't just take it from him. The band has already been lauded by the press with features such as Spin's Who's Next ‘08 and Rolling Stone's Artists To Watch. And take it from no less than Pharrell Williams, who signed the unclassifiable duo to his Star Trak/Interscope label after an early copy of the album, recorded by the two largely in a dorm basement studio while they were students at Harvard, was passed from them to his engineer, Drew Coleman.
"It's been a long time since I've heard a project teeming with this sort of musicality and originality," says Williams, the phenomenal artist/producer/trailblazer of Neptunes, N.E.R.D. and so-much-else fame. "You're going to watch history unfold with these guys. I feel it in my gut."
That works for Wallach and Drummey, who trace an aesthetic lineage from Beethoven to Brian Wilson, from Les Paul to Prince to, well, Pharrell Williams. They see walls coming down with a new generation inspired by innovative artists like Gnarls Barkley and OutKast.
Chester French – subject of a signing battle that also included Kanye West, Jermaine Dupri and Jimmy Iovine before Williams closed the deal - wants to be at the front of that movement.
"Hopefully our role in culture can be to stand for this moment in history where meaningless social and musical categories are finally dissolving," Wallach says.
The music backs that up. In discussion the two freely reference a sky-full of musical stars and constellations.
"A lot of people make experimental music. We look at our music as not being experimental, but being the result of a variety of experiments – what we distilled from doing outlandish things, what are the best ideas," Drummey says.
It's a concept that coalesced over the course of the three-plus years in which the music was initially made, a process that began with a simple encounter of the two then-freshmen at a Harvard commissary.
Milwaukee-raised Wallach and Boston native Drummey quickly found a lot of shared ground in musical tastes and philosophies and before long had recruited three other musicians into a band playing various campus functions, eventually moving in a direction heavily influenced by classic British Northern Soul. Over the summer both stayed in Cambridge, working hard at songwriting. But when school resumed, they realized that the material went way beyond the basic guitar-bass-drums-piano format of the band, and the duo continued the work themselves, Wallach handling most of the vocals, Drummey performing much of the music on an orchestra's-worth of instruments, supplemented with the occasional specialist guest – and both taking production and engineering duties for recordings that melded both of their sensibilities and visions.
"Being just two people in the studio we could layer anything we wanted," Drummey says. "It liberated us to arrange the album in interesting ways."
Interesting hardly captures it. Working along the way in a campus studio arranging, engineering and producing all sorts of sessions expanded the pair's musical vocabulary and sense of recording innovation. With that wealth of resources at their command, they set out to craft something at once all-encompassing and focused.
The environment they created was fertile for creativity and spontaneity. Sometimes it was just a simple notion of combining sounds that might, or might not, work together.
With ‘Neal,' the two borrowed a page from Outkast and "tried to combine swing with hip hop production," Drummey says. "We were really inspired by the trailer to the film ‘Idlewild.' Then we incorporated the rock vibe and the Les Paul vibe and it ended up really different, but the idea was to create a futuristic Prohibition bar room."
A different turn happened with "Beneath the Veil."
"That was another thing in the vein of ‘Neal' – how can we bring modern hip-hop production to a sort of country song?" he continues. "That almost started as a joke between D.A. and I. D.A. was squatting in a dorm with friends and for kicks we started playing the most generic country thing we could imagine. And over time we realized with the melody it was turning into a good song."
And then there are "Fingers" and "Not Over You," tours de force if ever there were:
" ‘Fingers' is basically orchestral, choruses are French horns, strings and tympanis," Drummey explains. "And ‘Not Over You' is synths, Theremins and keyboards."
And if ever there's a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, even parts as enticing and intriguing as these, Chester French is it.
It's their openness to just about anything, and ability to make it their own, which made that possible. This spirit is even reflected in the group's unique collaborations with other artists from rapper Talib Kweli to French artist Yi Zhou and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
"There's also another dimension here that is something the hip-hop guys liked about us, a post-racial approach to music," Drummey says. "We can consume all sorts of music and understand that it's all just music – none of it maps on to a type of person. We try to be as open as possible. There's not a single genre of music we discriminate against. We just hate shitty music."