Interview: Jose Gonzalez
Thu, 29 May 2008 11:14:10
Jose Gonzalez has a knack for making the right choices. Cover songs can be the source of great folly for singer/songwriters, but his gentle, nuanced rendering of The Knife's "Heartbeats" helped introduce Gonzalez and his nylon-stringed guitar to an international audience. Fans sometimes react harshly when an artist sells off a beloved song for commercial usage, but even the ad that "Heartbeats" soundtracked wound up being atypically artful (the Sony Bravia ad with the countless colorful balls bouncing down the street).
When it came time to set out on the road to support his newest album, 2007's In Our Nature , Gonzalez made another savvy choice: he went green. Following in the footsteps of artists like Jack Johnson and Radiohead (they have slightly more in common than just sharing endless festival bills), Gonzalez hooked up a non-profit organization, Reverb, and committed himself to reducing his environmental impact while on the road.
During a stop in Los Angeles, Gonzalez took some time between a visit to Jay Leno and a gig at the historic Wiltern Theatre to talk to ARTISTdirect about his earth-friendly tour and the domino effect he hopes it will have on other artists.
For the uninitiated, what is a green tour?
We hooked up with this company called Reverb, and they helped us plan out the tour and the transportation and the stuff backstage—and part of the budget goes to putting money in green projects that Reverb is involved in. So, part of it is carbon offsets and other things.
Are there inconveniences for the artist?
I haven't noticed many on a personal level. Much of it is done at the planning stage. You notice it in the budget—it costs a little bit more, [although] not if you're creative.
There have been some high-profile acts that have done these green tours. Is it feasible for smaller bands to make the same commitments, given the occasional higher costs?
We're still a small production compared to the Beastie Boys or Dave Matthews Band. For bigger productions, it's probably easier to have someone come in and help you out. If you're a small band that tours in a van, you're probably not polluting that much compared to people who are flying everywhere they go.
Chartering private jets to go homes in between shows.
[Laughs] Yeah, or asking for bottled water from Italy when you're in the U.S. There's probably even more crazy stuff that people ask for. For me, I've never really had any strange stuff on my rider [ed: artists' backstage requests], and it's a small production—so it doesn't change that much. Other bands would have to make bigger sacrifices.
Have you noticed any pushback from the venues? Are they cooperating?
Yeah, they've been helping us out—putting out litter boxes to separate recycling and glasses and paper. They seem to be okay with helping us out. If more people start asking for that, it's easier. Once you get it started, it's easy for everyone—it becomes something you don't have to think about. When I was growing up in Sweden, every house had a separate container for grass and for paper and for batteries. If you're used to it, it's not an effort. If it's up to you to make all those changes, it can be a bit overwhelming, and it's easy to feel like it's not practical.
One of the big reasons that I feel like [a green tour] is a good idea is that it can have a symbolic effect and a ripple effect.
“If you're used to it, it's not an effort. If it's up to you to make all those changes, it can be a bit overwhelming”
It does point toward change that can be made on an individual level—not like "Down with the government!" or something. But sometimes musicians can be really nervous about being painted as a "political" artist. Hopefully the environment isn't a partisan issue that people can take exception to, but do you feel nervous in any way that people will see you as someone trying to foist his beliefs on the crowd?
I guess the only part where I'm nervous is the part about moralizing and how people might feel like it's a way to gain publicity by being politically correct. As you said, with the environment, it shouldn't be a political issue. [The worry] is more about coming off as too smarty-pants.
How much was your music shaped by your education?
At school we had a music teacher who was really open—he let us borrow the keys and we would play drums and bass and electric guitars on our lunch break. This was when I was 13 or 14. A lot of my interest in music started at that age.
It's nice to have a place like that where you can go and explore without someone looking over you the whole time or trying to drive in curriculum.
Yeah, exactly. And when I started playing bass in a hardcore band, it was really easy to find rehearsal space. In Sweden, we have these houses or rooms that are dedicated to young people for hanging out and doing whatever they want—many times they'll have a room with drum sets and amplifiers. I think that's one of the big reasons why you have so much music from Sweden; people are able to start at a young age, and it's not just classical or choir.
You're playing some big venues now. How challenging is it to take music that can often be soft and nuanced and make it transmit all the way out to the back rows and balconies of these big places?
Yeah, I've played a couple of venues like that. It works if you have a big PA and people come to the show knowing what to expect. I think we've been able to bring up the volume compared to other nylon-stringed guitarists. It's not as hushed as you might think when you're listening to the albums. I've had many people say that they like the live show because it's more dynamic. The albums can be a bit flat sometimes.
What's on tap for you in the near future?
[After U.S. and Canada] We're going back to Europe for a month; we're going to Eastern Europe, where I haven't been before. We have May off, and then we're back for a couple of festivals like Bonnaroo. Then I'm going to stop touring and start making music with Junip—and hopefully on my own, too.
Read more about Jose Gonzalez and his festival appearances on the ARTISTdirect Festivals Guide