Unlike his more dour peers, Eugene Chadbourne is an avant-garde icon for the rest of us. In more than 30 years of performing, the multi-instrumentalist, improviser, writer and raconteur has filled more than 100 of his own and other people's albums with guitar freakouts, goofy voices, banjo freakouts, left-wing satire, amplified yard-implement freakouts and even songs with verses and choruses and everything. He's collaborated with John Zorn, Billy Bragg and Corrosion of Conformity, and he still tours everywhere, all of the time: The DVD G.O.I.N. "Get Out of Iraq Now" captures a politicized pair of 2006 shows in Amsterdam, where Chadbourne was accompanied by a couple of Violent Femmes, former Gil Scott-Heron sideman Brian Jackson and his own daughter, Molly. While Chadbourne may have matured, he's as loud mouthed as ever about his politics — and his music remains a mess in the best possible way.
B-Sides: When and how did you decide to turn a garden rake into a musical instrument?
Eugene Chadbourne: I remember the day well. It was early summer after we had moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, and I was raking up the yard of our new house. When the handle of the rake broke, I thought, Hmmm, maybe I should put a contact mic on this and play it at the gig tonight. This is something important distinguishing me from most of the other residents of Greensboro. I had been hooking up contact mics for several years to stuff like egg slicers, vegetable slicers and Afro combs, but nothing quite had the effect on the audience that the electric rake did! Within weeks it had turned into some kind of cult, with people driving hundreds of miles to gigs and asking, "Are you playing your rake?"
Improvisational music is at least partially about playfulness, but it's often presented with no explicit sense of humor at all. What role does humor play in your music?
I include humor in my music, others don't, and I think you can see this across the board with all artists, not just the hard-to-define avant-garde scene. It must come down to one being able to do humor, as opposed to people that can't — and then of course it can divide the audience, not everyone appreciates humor. One of the best comments about me ever was in Kerrang! magazine: "He could be the ultimate heavy-metal bandleader, but he insists on singing like Bugs Bunny."
Your combining improvisation with country music was considered novel, but before recording technology, the entire country-folk tradition was built through successive improvisations on traditional tunes. What drew you to the idea of improvisational country?
You are exactly right. It was that tradition that drew me to the combination — that and the shock effect it had on people at the time. Now people seem to approach this type of combination with much more acceptance.
The clarity of your politics stands in contrast to a lot of avant-garde artists. What's the connection between improvisation and your politics?
I think this, again, comes down to differences in people. Some people are just not comfortable with politics, others feel that the act of creativity in itself is political. I know political humor brings people much relief, and that is a good thing. I am happy to try and provide that.
Does the election of Barack Obama make you feel more or less optimistic about the future?
There is no way not to feel some optimism about it, but he better get out of Afghanistan and pronto.
Do you ever worry about getting bored?
No, that is about the only thing I do not worry about. My high school principal said, "Boredom comes more from sterility within than the sterility of one's surroundings," and he was half right.