Piano Man - Macleans.ca

Piano Man

Q & A with Gonzales—Feist’s quirky producer—who recently entered the record books with a 27-hour concert

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Piano Man In a feat that was as much about physical stamina as musical prowess, Canadian pianist Gonzales won himself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records on Monday, with a concert that lasted an exhausting 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds. Originally from Montreal, Gonzales (born Jason Beck), has earned notoriety for producing Feist’s second album “The Reminder,” and releasing six of his own. But his most recent performance at a theatre in Paris, where he now lives, is attracting attention from well outside the confines of his traditional indie-rock fan base—which, according to Gonzales, was precisely the point.

Q: When you were preparing for the marathon performance, you had a team of doctors and an acupuncturist giving you advice. What was the most useful suggestion you received?

A: Well, useful in an oppositional way, interestingly enough. They told me, “Listen, you can’t give 100 per cent all the time. It’s a marathon. You’re not going to be able to do that.” That really rankled me, because the whole point of doing this was to show that not only could I assure the quantitative aspects of the challenge—to do the 27 hours—but I wanted as well to qualitatively succeed, and to me, that meant giving 100 per cent all of the time. And I think I did. Despite being advised to coast on autopilot at certain moments, I really resisted that temptation. And I went as deep as I could into the music and as deep as I could into the dynamics. Playing softly, playing very loudly, taking it to some surreal levels, letting the audience decide what songs I was playing, all of that was a strategy to avoid autopilot, so that they would be implicated in it with me. Because otherwise it would have been very easy for me to get that 27-hour record, but have people leave, or watch the stream and go “Ah, this is useless.” To me, I only get the ego boost when I feel like I’ve shared something. That’s what makes me an entertainer, not an artist.

Q: Before the concert, you said you were “freaking out but enjoying the freak out.” To what extent did that change once you started to play? Were you more nervous or less? How did that play out?

A: It went in cycles. There were a few moments where I just was worried about keeping up the qualitative aspects. I don’t think that I ever thought that I wouldn’t make it to 27 (hours), but I was having doubts about whether the audience would indulge for hours, and just listen to the piano, especially when it became clear that it was going to be a long day. You don’t really realize that until you play the first three hours and then you realize, “Okay, I’m a ninth of the way through.” It looms in front of you.

Q: I heard that your arms cramped up at about four hours in. That must have thrown you for a loop.

A: I’ve had that a couple of times before in concert, but I was testing the limits when I had the cramps, I thought, “Okay, I can play a bit more from my wrist, change positions.” Then I realized there’s no real permanent danger here. I can always take a break, play a song that works on just the right hand or the left hand. The doctors suggested I drink a lot. I learned that dehydrated is connected to getting cramps. And that went away. After about hour eight or nine, the cramps were a dead issue.

Q: I know that Guinness bans the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but how much caffeine did you consume?

A: Not much. I think I drank two cappuccinos. You can crash if you have too much caffeine. The doctors, every time I would go backstage for my 15-minute break, they would say, “Eat some rice now…Now you should drink some Coke…Have some water.” And I would just happily follow their advice so I didn’t have to think about what I wanted, because that was actually a hard question at that point.

Q: You must have gone through a range of emotions. Can you take me through some of the peaks and valleys?

A: A certain euphoria kicked in. Anytime you stay up that long, there is something comparable to taking hallucinogenic drugs, which I don’t have much experience with, but from what I understand it’s similar. There was a few times where I just would look at the clock and go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe my next break is only in an hour and a half,” or, “What am I going to play? And does the audience hate this?” But as the hours went on they were so supportive. They were giving me so much energy and giving me so much love. In those last 10 hours, I was barely looking at the audience, let alone talking to them. I was just amazed that they would do that. I think it might start to inform my future concerts, to know that maybe I don’t have to be quite as aggressive in always directing their attention somewhere; that I can put the music in the forefront.

Q: Mostly, the audience turned over every three hours, but I understand there were a handful of people who actually bought tickets for the entire show.

A: Just a handful. One was a German journalist. She was writing an article, not only about the concert, but about what would happen to her to sit there for the whole 27 hours. And there were a couple of fans who were there in the front row. Every time I would go out after break I would see them there again. I was really amazed that they were there and it was very touching. It’s actually fairly intimate to share that much together.

Q: That really comes across in the last 30 seconds. The audience goes absolutely nuts right before you reached the 27-hour mark. What was that like for you, knowing that your seconds away and everyone is screaming and throwing confetti?

A: As you can imagine, it’s very emotional. Very exciting, very emotional. I can’t really say much more than that.

Q: When you finished, you were covered in a combination of sweat, confetti and ribbons. Did you feel like you looked?

A: How did I look?

Q: Spent.

A: Yeah, I was really beyond any normal description. Just to say that I was exhausted doesn’t really begin to cover it. That’s what made it so emotional as well, because you’re beyond the point where you can quantify what you’re feeling. So, for one time in my life, I’m actually speechless to describe how I felt. I was bypassing any conscious registrations of what I was feeling.

Q: How long did it take you to feel normal again?

A: It didn’t take that long. I’m still sleeping it off and having lots of naps. I actually had to do a little bit of work in the studio on Tuesday, which was pretty jarring. I ended up doing a voice-over for a French children’s cartoon. That was really surreal.

Q: The previous world record of 26 hours, 12 minutes, was set by India’s Prasanna Gudi in December. How long do you hope that your record will stand?

A: I’d love to be the record holder for a while. But, you know, I did rain on someone’s parade only five months after they got it. Given the nature of my personality and my public image, maybe someone’s going to say, “We’ve got to put this guy in his place.” I’m sure there are lots of ways to break that record which are just as valid. But what gives me the pride is that I managed to use my particular skill set to its maximum for this performance: My ego, my stubbornness, my photographic musical memory. About half of those 240-odd songs I played, I was playing for the first time. They’re just songs that exist in my hard drive. So, like the guy who puts 143 cigarettes in his mouth, I found something where my superpowers could just come together and make it happen. Of course, records are made to be broken, and I invite anyone to do it.