In the world of aggressive voicemail away messages, Vic Chesnutt's wins the record for the most hostility in the fewest words. The Athens, Ga.-based singer-songwriter, who has been aptly called curmudgeonly and cynical in articles and interviews, greets callers with a curt "Fuck off," before the beep follows promptly, leaving the caller with the option of either taking his suggestion or leaving a clever message that shows you can take a joke. Either way, once I finally reached Chesnutt on a Saturday afternoon, I was surprised that he was fairly easy-going. He apologized for being so hard to reach and carried on a conversation for a good 20 minutes about Fortean phenomena, the Huffington Post and his new record before our call was cut off, or he, um, hung up on me and I had to wonder if it was something I said.
I caught Chesnutt while he was touring behind his new album, Dark Developments, which was billed to Chesnutt, Elf Power and the Amorphous Strums, and released last October on Orange Twin Records, a record label based on a "pedestrian-based eco-village" housed on 100 acres of woodland, 5 miles outside of Athens, Ga.
Recluse and gadfly
As both a quirky lyricist who's in his own way and an active collaborator who has worked with a whole mess of talented musicians in his career of over 20 years, Chesnutt embodies two stereotypes of creative animals: the withdrawn poet and the social gadfly.
First, the gadfly: Chesnutt was encouraged to record his first album by Athens' most famous musical son, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who ended up producing his first two records, 1990's Little and 1991's Drunk. He's since worked with another Athens band - Widespread Panic, with whom he formed the group Brute - as well as the Nashville-based chamber-twang collective Lambchop, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, baroque pop arranger Van Dyke Parks and a diverse mix of musicians on 2007's North Star Orchestra (including chamber rock band Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, members of Frankie Sparrow and Fugazi's Guy Picciotto).
Now the recluse: At the same time, Chesnutt's elliptical, opaque and lapidary style isn't always easy to engage with (although there are more simple and declarative turns on his new album). He cites Wallace Stevens and Stevie Smith as influences - and talks about spending an hour with a "Shakespeare sonnet about jacking off" - and does occasionally combine the best of both those poets: a high-flown modernism and poetry of ideas from Stevens and a conversational and rather cynical style from Smith. Meanwhile, some of his more tortured songs tell of separation of another sort, speaking of struggles with addiction and depression: "Why do I insist on drinking myself to the grave / Why do I dream about cozy coffin," he sings on "Square Room" from The Salesman and Bernadette.
Given that background, it's surprising that Chesnutt drew upon the world of sports to talk about his writing style and collaborating with other musicians (and specifically, Elf Power). In fact, Chesnutt surprised himself when he happened upon the metaphor.
"I guess it would be kind of like playing quarterback for a bunch of different teams because they all have their own kind of offense. I'm pushing the bounds of my sports knowledge here. Sometimes one band, like Lambchop, might have a running back who can also catch. And Elf Power might only have a running back who's good up the middle and can't catch. So you've got to exploit their talents."
Asked about his writing style, Chesnutt went right back to the field.
"Oh shit! I'm going to make another sports metaphor. You know, you have to have a big playbook to execute. So sometimes you need a simple run up the middle and sometimes you need a Statue of Liberty play. This is kind of how I feel. Sometimes a metaphor is the only way to get to complex things. And sometimes, 'We Are Mean' [from Dark Developments] is pretty simple ... there's no metaphor and there's no literary technique at all. It's just kind of declarative."
Chesnutt's latest backing band, Elf Power, was in the second wave of bands associated with the Elephant Six Recording Company, a collective of indie-pop musicians created in Athens in the early '90s that officially disbanded in 2002. It wasn't a movement that Chesnutt had anything to do with when he was establishing his career in the mid '90s, even if they did live in the same somewhat small town, and even if Chesnutt had previously worked with Athens-based musicians like Michael Stipe and Widespread Panic.
"Those were fucking wily kids," Chesnutt said, loudly enough so that those now-grown-up wily kids with which he's touring could hear him. "I had nothing to do with those little twerps."
But at least one Elephant 6 member was listening to Chesnutt. Elf Power lead singer and guitarist Andrew Reiger remembers hearing Chesnutt's first album in the early '80s.
"I first heard his first album Little when I was in high school in the late 1980s," Reiger says. "I was a huge R.E.M. fan at the time, and I bought the record solely because Michael Stipe produced it. I instantly fell in love with it - I loved the grainy recording quality, the lyrics, the singing, the simplicity of the arrangements."
As Chesnutt puts it, he came around to working with some Elephant 6 alumni once "they all got older." Elf Power ended up backing up Chesnutt in January 2006 on a live music show called Music Road broadcast on the now-defunct Turner South network.
"We had a great time, and worked really well together," says Rieger of that first concert. "So we started getting together at Vic's attic studio and recording new songs. Over the course of a year, we had an album's worth of songs recorded."
Chesnutt's most self-excoriating turn on the record - "Little Fucker" (or "Little F****r" in iTunes) - is given a somewhat upbeat twist, opening with a simple booming bass guitar riff that leads into acid rock with group harmonies. "Little fucker needs a wide berth / Little fucker's more trouble than he's worth," sings Chesnutt, who was partially paralyzed in a traffic accident at age 18 and uses a wheelchair (hence, perhaps, the wide berth in the song, which he says is autobiographical). Chesnutt says he picked up the nickname while on a 2006 tour with the Undertow Orchestra, an ensemble of singer-songwriters comprised of Chesnutt, David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), Mark Eitzel (American Music Club) and Scott Danborn and Will Johnson (Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel).
"Their nickname for me was Little Fucker," Chesnutt explains. "They called me that because every time they would lift me into the van, I would squeal like they were hurting me, and it would startle them. Then one time, I was doing that and I started laughing, and they realized I was just fucking with them. Then when they realized that, Mark Eitzel said, 'You little fucker,' and then they started calling me Little Fucker all day. And so I liked it. So then when we broke up, I wrote this song as a mean song to myself because I was sad. I couldn't keep up with them."
It's hard not to hear every word in Chesnutt's lyrics; as essayist John J. Sullivan wrote in The Oxford American, "Vic has somehow turned pronunciation into an instrument. He's constantly resurrecting and warping syllables that we have, through habit or sloth, nearly elided into oblivion." But I still had to check the song title to confirm that Chesnutt was singing about a "bilocating dog" on a song from Dark Developments. "The Curious Case of the Bilocating Dog" was based on an article Chesnutt read in the Fortean Times about a dog whose family claims was in two places at once, bilocation or multilocation being defined as the ability to exist simultaneously in two places. For the record, though, Chesnutt doesn't believe the story to be true.
"Hell no, I don't believe dogs can be in two places at once! But there's all kinds of stuff in the Fortean Times. There's articles about lobsters who can clamp their claws together and create plasma energy balls. There's all kinds of different phenomena in the universe that are fantastic, and I'm very open to these different kinds of phenomena."