Mike Ragogna: It’s obvious this was a very special record for you to make, both from the quality of the songs and the packaging. What’s at the heart of At the Cut?
Vic Chesnutt: Well, I didn’t come at it thinking it would be an album about childhood or introspection or hallucinated memoirs. In fact, I wanted to make a very different album. These are the songs the band picked out of all the songs that I brought to them. It was a great exercise in democracy.
MR: Let’s talk about a few of the songs. “Flirted With You All My Life” seems to be an ode to “death.”
VC: Yes, it is.
MR: When you’re writing songs like this, are you coming at them as a catharsis?
VC: “Flirted With You All My Life” was inspired totally by the singer Exuma. He blew my mind. I’d discovered him from Howard Bilerman, the guy who engineered this record. He turned me on to him just before we made it, and I was obsessed with Exuma. He sings about zombies and s**t ’cause he’s from the Caribbean. I was like, “What can I sing about with conviction? I can’t sing about zombies, so what can I sing about?” Then it occurred to me that I can sing a love song to death because, it’s no secret, I’ve suicided several times. I suck at it, it didn’t work. But it’s a song about a man who discovers he wants to live. It’s like a breakup song with death.
MR: You have some impressive artists that have contributed to At The Cut.
VC: This band is incredible. I’m so honored, I got Guy Picciotto from Fugazi playing on this, and he helped produce it. He’s a great icon of rock ‘n’ roll, one of the best front men who ever lived and now he’s playing on my record. He’s quite an influential individual so I’m honored. And Silver Mt. Zion is one of the most powerful acts that has ever been. It’s very powerful, very heavy, and for me to be able to play with people like this is a boost. You know, “Flirted With You All Of My Life” is almost a tribute to these guys for saving me.
MR: Looking back to your first couple of records, they’re considered classics and introduced you to the world. How do you feel you evolved from then, like from album to album?
VC: For my first album, when we recorded it in 1988, I was a pretty provincial dude. I was twenty-three years old. I’d never been anywhere, I’m from Pike County, Georgia, for God sakes, you know? I was a very Southern guy, and by the time I made this album, I’d already lost my damned Southern accent. That’s how it changes, I mean, I feel like a totally different person now…before that, I was a redneck bum from Georgia.
MR: During “When The Bottom Fell Out” your dog joins you, there’s outside noise and things are creaking…it’s like you’re performing with the ambience. It totally loaded it up with personality.
VC: While recording that song, I really wanted Guy (Picciotto) and Jessica (Moss, violinist) to play on it with me. I said, “Okay, I’ll lay it down, then I’m going to leave a place for you to play,” and then after I did this take, I said, “…you guys go in there and play.” They were like, “Heeeell no! We ain’t playin’ on this, no way!” I got screwed, but there turned out to be something magical about it.
MR: Yeah, considering how sparsely-produced it is, it’s loaded with personality.
VC: I swear to God, I tried to get that song knocked off the record a million times because I thought it sucked. I’m not a very confident dude which is very harmful to my career, I know.
MR: You re-recorded your song “Coward,” and it’s the first track and sets the mood for the album. Can you tell me about the song?
VC: I was reading The Radetzky March, the Joseph Roth novel. Jem Cohen had all of reading it because he was getting us ready to do the music for his Empires Of Tin project for the Vienna Film Festival. I came across a line in there, “…courage of the coward, greater than all others,” and I was inspired to write this song. It’s straight up me. I mean, I am a coward, and you know, a scared-y cat’ll scratch you if you back him in a corner. This is how I am. I am a coward but I can lash out and hurt you. That’s what this song’s about
MR: Overall, the album flirts with a bunch of different styles, like going from a roots-y sound to the after hours feel of “He Hovered With Short Wings.”
VC: That’s a municipal fetish song as I like to call it.
MR: And what about “Philip Guston”?
VC: This album is very much a personal memoir, but it’s also very much about inspiration, like in my creative life. Philip Guston was a very influential painter. Jem Cohen is a big fan, and we’ve gone to Philip Guston shows together in New York.
MR: Speaking of art, the packaging is over-the-top.
VC: It really is. The Constellation packages are always inspiring in themselves. They’re always beautiful and a joy to witness and hold in your hand.
MR: Recently, you had a run-in with the health industry?
VC: If you mean by “run-in” the sheriff leaving notes on my door that I owe fifty-thousand dollars to hospitals even though I pay eight-hundred dollars a month for major medical insurance, then I’d say yes, I’ve had a run-in with them. I’m about to go bankrupt because of that, yeah.
MR: Has the fifty-thousand been accruing over many years?
VC: It’s confusing where it all comes from because the paperwork is almost indecipherable. I’ve had several surgeries in a short period of time–a couple of years–and from that, I now owe fifty-thousand dollars.
MR: Did they try at all to help you settle your debt before this notice appeared?
VC: No, they didn’t. I’m sure a lot of it is my fault, I could have probably handled it differently, but I was overwhelmed and confused by what looked like multiple charges for the same procedure–things like that. You couldn’t get any straight answers. Every time you talked with somebody on the phone, you’d get a different answer. So it was confusing.
MR: You were overwhelmed by the bureaucracy?
VC: That’s the thing. It’s not a free market system, it’s a private enterprise system, and it’s terribly bureaucratic.
MR: When you look at what’s going on in the healthcare debate, some of it must be infuriating to you.
VC: I’ve had intimate relations with the health industry for many, many years. I’ve been in hospitals around the world too, so I’ve seen the way it works in other countries. Some of the healthcare debate that’s going on now is some of the most ludicrous discussions I’ve ever seen. It’s hilarious! Obama’s incompetent and the right are morons.
MR: Are you disillusioned with Obama?
VC: I’ve said this before the election. When I heard him speak in 2004, everybody loved him when he spoke at the convention. I thought he sounded like Bill Clinton. I thought, “I don’t like this guy,” but I voted for him, of course. But I wasn’t expecting anything, I thought he was a republican like a Clinton, in democrat clothing. I voted for him for the symbolism. I knew nothing was gonna change domestic policies in America because the vested interests have complete control of Congress and The White House, you know? Both parties.
MR: And the supposed liberal media.
VC: Yeah, the media is corporate-owned. There is no alternative, when you look at it.
MR: Well, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, Air America, and The Huffington Post are still trying to get the word out.
VC: And Democracy Now, of course. Yeah, they say something, but that’s not on the nightly news where people can see it. The only people who listen to Air America…they’re preaching to the choir, man! The Huffington Post is a perfect example. A lot of right wing people read it, but they’re not getting their minds changed by any word on there. They’re just there to throw firebombs, that’s all. There is no debate in this country, it’s always been like that. Jefferson and Hamilton both had their own papers. It’s just the way it is.
MR: Is there anything being discussed in the healthcare battle that you think can move things along, how to get past where we are now?
VC: Well, it’s poisoned now because of Obama’s political ineptitude. And the right wing…like what McCain said about tax cuts, tort reform and deregulation–that’s not gonna help, that’s not gonna get us what we want. That’s not gonna make anybody happy. I think the only think that could help is to repeal some of the laws that are on the books…things that Reagan did. We spend all this money on the National Institutes of Health and all this money on research, and then give the patent to the drug companies, and they in turn charge us a fortune for it. And you’ve got to change the way medicine is incentivized now, doing too many procedures. We also have to change the drug companies’ hold on research and their patent laws. Before the Bye-Dole Act in the eighties, the National Institutes of Health spent millions of dollars on drug research, and then everybody had the patent, so you could make generic versions of these drugs for cheap and everybody was happy. Now drug companies’ research money is directed to make money.
MR: It seems like it’s not really in their interest to cure anything.
VC: It’s not, and that’s why you have to change the way our system is incentivized. Single payer? That’s not gonna happen. The right? They’ll riot with guns.
MR: Do you think they even know what “single payer” means?
VC: They don’t know anything. They are rallying around their team, that’s all it is. And to be in that is the height of valor, their loyalty to their team means more to them than any kind of reality, and they hate liberals so much.
MR: How do you see the health debate ending?
VC: I really don’t know. I’m never surprised at whatever happens because I’m not like the rest of America. I’m always surprised at the absurdity of their politics. The way that republicans and democrats can work together is by reforming the system as it is because no matter what Obama does, it’s not gonna happen. The right smells blood and they feel like they’ve gotta win this thing.