House of Blues – Chicago, IL
March 24, 2009
Read my interview with D.A. Wallach (right) and Max Drummey (left) from Chester French after the jump!
Who did you grow up listening to that has been an influence on the music you like to play now?
Max: Like when we were really little? Like slightly post-natal? Motown – the littlest for me. The youngest music experience I remember is Motown. Classic Four Tops, Temptations, Supremes stuff.
DA: I had a more classic upbringing. Kenny Loggins, Aerosmith, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson.
Who are some “under-the-radar” artists that you’ve discovered and are listening to now that the public should know about?
DA: Kenny Loggins. Kenny Loggins is pretty good. We’re trying to get him to the next generation.
Max: This is the time I wish I had my computer so I could look up things.
DA: We like – we dig the Jonas Brothers pretty hard.
Max: Yeah, they’re gonna blow up soon. They’re like standing on the verge of getting it on is what they’re doing right now.
DA: They’re a band to watch. The one thing I like about them is they’re a real band. Seriously, Kevin and the guys have a really good vibe in person. I took my little sister to see them and meet them. I got to get in line and do the ‘meet and greet’ with them last summer in Milwaukee and they were really, really nice guys. I said: “hey guys, I’m a recording artist too. it’s really nice to meet you.” And I said: “hey, let me give you my number, so if you guys are in L.A. we can party.” Cuz we lived in L.A.
Max: You tried to party with the JBs, dude?
DA: Yeah, of course! It goes without saying that they didn’t hit me up. It’s one of those things where they’re still underground, but they think they’re really mainstream. So much so that they wouldn’t call me. They signed my titties though. They signed my breasts.
Who are your biggest fashion icons and/or influences?
Max: I’m pretty deep into Kurt Cobain and Marie Antoinette right now. Those are my two main fashion icons. But I’m fickle, so next week it could be Zorro and Marilyn Monroe. But right now it’s Cobain and Marie Antoinette.
What are your favorite stores to shop at? Have any in Chicago that you hit up while in town?
DA: In general?
Max: Does stealing count? Is that shopping too?
DA: Shoplifting? I really like this place in L.A. called Carol and Company where they have these socks that are really warm and thick. I just bought some socks last week. The other guys were making fun of me. I went in there and bought some socks. They’re expensive, but they’re worth it. They’re like slippers. They sell a multitude of sartorial achievements.
What do you find most difficult about engineering and producing?
DA: Of engineering and producing?
Max: Sometimes you have a really complicated adaptor situation where you’ve gotta go stereo RCA to eighth-inch female, right? But then you gotta take that eighth-inch female and somehow get to a quarter-inch male and back to RCA, you know? And then you’re wondering: “why didn’t I just stay with RCA in the first place?” The connectors are adding some sonic ‘sss’ to what you’re doing. It’s really connecting all the cables is complicated. I don’t want to swear, but it’s a mindfuck.
DA: And then also, once you’ve finished the producing and engineering, sometimes untangling those cords can be really difficult.
Max: Oh, coiling cables! Sometimes you’re trying to wrap them up so they’ll be easy to use next time, but they get little kinks in them; they get little knots.
DA: A little tease, like some hair.
Max: A lot of times it helps if one of us grabs one end of the cable and the other grabs the other. What’s that Disney movie with the dogs? Lady and the Tramp with the spaghetti thing, but with cables.
DA: Then we just meet and it ends in a handshake with the cable perfectly coiled. We like overcoming challenges in the studio and typically the simplest, basic gear challenges are the most exciting. The cables, the connectors, and everything. We’re always up to it.
What do you enjoy most about engineering and producing?
DA: Once you get those cables wound up and hung on the wall when you’re done, there’s no feeling like it. Seriously, you feel like you’ve just built the Great Wall of China. You know what I mean?
Max: I just like listening to my own music.
DA: Over and over again.
Max: All the time.
DA: We don’t listen to anyone else’s music.
Max: Except The White Tie Affair. We just listen to White Tie and CF.
Why study Social Anthropology and African American Studies while in college? Why not major in music composition or performance in an instrument?
Max: Because the music department at Harvard – and I’m going to say this openly hoping they’ll change it – is a fucking waste of space. It’s a huge fucking waste of space. It’s a waste of a building. It’s a waste of a faculty. It’s a waste of a small segment of the student body. End of story.
DA: They’re studying fucking Gregorian chants.
Max: If you want to learn how to do choral conducting you’re gonna have a great fucking time. With the exception of – there are two classes there. There’s one class in electro-acoustic composition that’s pretty amazing and they have a lot of great equipment.
DA: Wait, you didn’t take it, did you?
Max: No. And there’s one class where they just let you write whatever music you want, which is a cool class. The rest of them are terrible and a waste of time.
DA: I took one music class, Intro to Music Theory. Senior year. Got an A minus.
Max: I’m mainly self-taught, but I took piano lessons when I was little. When I was in college I studied jazz guitar at Berklee School of Music in Boston for a little while. But then I quit doing that because I’m not a pussy, so it’s like: “why would I do that?”
DA: That’s how Chester French started. It was a break out group. It was a combo at a jazz camp.
Max: We’ve actually done a jazz trio gig before with our old bass player.
DA: What was that event? It was some summer cocktail party on the Cape.
Max: It was at some guy’s house. I don’t know how it came about.
DA: We just set up and it was just drums, guitar, and bass. We just played jazz standards.
Max: The only song I remember playing is “Round About Midnight.” I’m sure we played many others.
You received offers for record deals from Kanye West, Jermaine Dupri, Pharrell, and Jimmy Iovine. What made you ultimately choose to sign with Pharrell’s Star Trak?
DA: We like Pharrell a lot and they [Star Trak] were really willing to give us a lot of artistic freedom. With them [The Neptunes] being producers, you might think that they wanted to exert control over us. But really, they were happy to let us do our thing, which was the biggest selling point. And they gave us enough money to not need jobs, which was awesome.
How much of the business side of the music industry did you understand before signing contracts for publishing and record deals? (D Ranger Publishing and Maxwell Drummey Music)
DA: We didn’t sign a publishing deal, we don’t understand anything. We just look for the dotted line.
Max: It’s usually convenient because in these long contracts they put little Post-Its that say ‘Sign Here’ and stick out. So you just go and sign there.
DA: We’re just guys who are so narcissistic that we’ll do anything to write our own signature anywhere. It might be a fan saying: “sign my butt.’
Max: For impotent guys like us, it’s just the only way we can spread our seed.
DA: Just to write that name everywhere. If someone gives us a contract, of course we’re going to sign it.
How did your collaboration with Common for the song “What A World” on his latest album Universal Mind Control come about?
DA: Yup. We were down in Miami.
Max: We did the N.E.R.D. / Common tour and we were down in Miami at the end of that tour. Hanging out in the studio.
DA: No, it was before that tour! That was the first time we met Common.
Max: Oh! It was right before the tour and we were in the studio. Pharrell and Common were working on this song. Pharrell was like: “DA, your vocal abilities are mind-blowing. Max, your guitar playing is almost mediocre. Let’s do this song.”
DA: Then we just put it down. Just said: “let’s give these people something to jam on.”
Max: It was basically a song that Pharrell had made and had us help a little bit.
DA: We were [all in the studio together] talking late through the night.
Max: We definitely shook hands and stuff. But not even normal handshakes. Pretty complicated baps.
Do you think playing SXSW last year had any effect on your popularity?
DA: Not really.
Max: No, it wasn’t that productive. South By last year, those were our first shows ever – period.
DA: It definitely increased our live popularity because we’d never played before.
Max: We weren’t really a profile.
DA: We played at Perez Hilton’s party. It was a great little exposure. It was nice that he had us there.
How did the many collaborations for “Jacques Jams, Vol. 1: Endurance” work? Was everybody in the studio together? Or did the process happen over a real-time Internet connection from separate studios? (Diddy, Jermaine Dupri, Pharrell, Janelle Monae, Bun B, Talib Kweli, Solange, Cassie, Clinton Sparks)
Max: It’s called “Jacques Jams, Volume 1: Endurance.”
Me: I know I got the email.
DA: You know if you respond to the email, it goes straight to our BlackBerries. If you ever reply to those, it’s like a real email from us. It’s not our label. We worked for about a week out in Massachusetts at Max’s friend’s house. Made a bunch of tracks. Where we thought it was appropriate to get other people involved, we invited them. Sent them the music. Pusha-T from the Clipse recorded in Virginia. Diddy recorded his in New York. Janelle Monae did her part in Atlanta. Jermaine Dupri did his in Atlanta. This was a real family affair project. It was all folks who we know.
When thinking up possible collaborations, how easy is it to reach out to another artist? Do you contact them yourselves or have your management or label handle it?
Max: We’re doing it with Clinton Sparks. We know a lot of the same people as him. So if we’re both hitting them [collaborators] up for a favor…
DA: People have been so accessible with it. There’s been no: “I’ll talk to my manager.” We just said: “look, we’re putting this out as a gift to the world for free on the Internet before our album comes out because we want people to get familiar, and we’d love to have you be a part of it.” There’s no money involved and there’s no paperwork; there’s nothing. It’s more fun to make music that way. Even when we did the Common record. Anytime you go through a label it’s paperwork and lawyers; it takes forever. This was just like: “yo, go in your studio, send us something, we’ll put it out.” It’s really fun.
What’s it like touring with Lady GaGa and opening for her every night?
DA: It’s cool. She’s got a really fun, young audience. We’re used to playing on these hip hop tours where we come out on stage and it’s like: “who are these cheesy little white dudes?” Then the Lady GaGa shows [are] 40% gay guys and 60% teeny-boppers. It’s fun. They want to have a good time and they’re not too self-conscious to dance, or scream, or get introduced to what we do. They’ve been supporting us greatly with buying our CDs and checking out the MySpace and website and everything.
What have you noticed about crowds at your recent shows?
DA: It’s really about winning them over. If we were just trying to bring our supporters out we’d do our own tour. Really the goal with this is we hope that Lady GaGa’s audience will like our music and our show. The goal is to – I wouldn’t say steal fans because they can still be Lady GaGa fans – but to add Chester French to their listening repertoire.
Who is your favorite person to follow on Twitter and why?
DA: Byron Crawford – this blogger who’s really funny. I always see his twitters [tweets] and go and read his blog posts. He writes intolerant, crazy stuff, but he’s also really funny. He has a unique writing style.
Max: I don’t fuck with Twitter. I have it, but all it says is: “hi.”
Do you think you would be where you are today if you had not signed with a label that happens to be an imprint of a major with huge marketing resources?
DA: We did it for four years on our own. This is our fifth year now working on this, and it’s just finally getting off the ground. Certainly, being with a label has opened up a lot of opportunities for us. It’s great to have a group of really talented people helping you promote it and build new supporters.
What would you be doing now if you two had never met while at the same college?
DA: We might be gay! You never know. Definitely our interests in girls were mutually reinforcing. The more we just hung out as two totally normal guys and just talked about chicks or whatever, the more we got into them.
Max: Just doing totally normal stuff.
DA: I’d say stuff like: “man, that girl’s so hot.” Max would, initially to overcompensate a little, say: “Oh my god! She’s SO hot!” But after awhile, we got it super natural.
Max: Just like: “yeah, she’s fly.” We’re putting out an album.
Me: I know. I got the email.
DA: April 21. Hell yeah, you got the email!
Me: I did! I got the email.
DA: You got familiar.
Max: I’m going to give you a secret: it’s really good. There are 13 tracks. It’s 42 minutes and 56 seconds long. No bullshit. It’s way better than whatever album you’re listening to right now. I guarantee it. What are you listening to right now?
Me: The Fame. Gotta prep myself for GaGa’s show tonight.
DA: It’s better.
Max: It’s better. Sorry. On the tour. Not gonna get kicked off over this because we’re clearly right. It’s better if you like art and entertainment.
How has your sound and songwriting changed since you released your first EP after your freshman year?
Max: It’s become less of a joke. And more of a joke at the same time.
DA: Our initial stuff was ridiculous lyrics like: “my limousine’s made for two / it’s made for me and it’s made for you.”
Max: We had: “shake your left hand / shake your right hand / your mind hand / like a rubber band.”
DA: We were very into the concept of the mind hand, which is just this thing. We were just fucking around, basically.
Max: It was our first time writing pop music. Then we had a five-piece band. It was the two of us; it was DA’s first time singing. I had been a jazz guitar player. We had a jazz bass player, and a jazz drummer, and a classical pianist. It was all of our first time being like: “oh wow, let’s write some pop music.” We were listening to a lot of British northern soul and we were all still openly perverts. So some weird shit came out of that. After that, we decided to buckle down and actually make good pop music.
What is the writing process like for you? Tough / easy?
Max: It is what it is. It’s not that easy, nor hard. It’s more of a music [Max] lyrics [DA] thing. I do a lot of the instrumentals. He [DA] does a lot of the melodies. We work collaboratively to lay down everything.
DA: In terms of how hard it is, like anything it requires work. The more time you put into it, the better the results are usually. We’re kinda like crazy perfectionists. We’ll end up agonizing over details that probably at the end of the day don’t make a huge difference to a listener. But when you add up 200 variables that are like that, the result will be a lot better; more polished.
Who came up with the concept of having some girl beat up two guys while they’re playing their own song for the “She Loves Everybody” music video?
DA: The director, Paul Hunter.
Max: Paul Hunter.
DA: He’s an amazing director who’s done some of the best videos ever. We’re not talented video directors or art directors. We try to work with people who do amazing work and trust them. It was a seamless experience working with Paul. He had the idea and two weeks later we were filming it. Then a month later it was done. They weren’t any problems or questions asked. It was great.
How do you feel about the whole Guitar Hero and Rock Band game phenomenon?
DA: My sister’s better at it than I am. She’s 14.
Max: I don’t play video games because I’m not a loser.
What are your thoughts on shows like “American Idol” and “Nashville Star,” which give young people record deals? And how do you think you would have done on a show like that?
DA: I think those people work – they do have to work for it. I think those shows downplay the elements of great music that we’re most attracted to. They’re basically only looking for someone who has the right look and the right voice.
Max: It’s a very particular type of singer. Honestly, if Otis Redding stepped onto “American Idol” he wouldn’t win it. They’re not looking for necessarily classic great voices. It’s something very particular.
DA: They’re looking for that big blockbuster personality-less singer.
Max: That said we don’t have beef with other people getting record deals. Anybody who wants one and gets one – that’s cool. And having had one, it’s not that tight. There’s cooler shit out there.
Some artists and bands believe that technology has taken the fun out of music, via using synthesizers and computers instead of instruments. How do you feel about production-based music?
DA: We use both.
Max: We use both. Here’s this new technology that allows you to do new things. Why would you be afraid of that? That should be exciting to you. Don’t forget old technology that allows you to do old things. And even new things with old things; and old things with new things. It’s just all about things, you know?
DA: Technology expands the palette. Having neon paint doesn’t mean that every painter needs to use neon paint all over, you know what I mean?
What question about your music has become your pet peeve?
DA: It’s all good. The only thing that is somewhat frustrating – and it’s awesome that you didn’t fall into this trap – is when people just ask simple biographical questions that were asked in every single interview. Not that we mind answering them, but it’s just obvious that they didn’t read [up on us]. You can go to our Wikipedia page and find all [of the answers]. I spent time answering those questions on our Wikipedia page specifically so it’s very easy to know. People always ask: “where did you get the name?” I don’t think there’ve been five interviews ever – this is one of them – where someone hasn’t asked us: “where did you get the name Chester French?” Thank you very much!