Chester French started as a four man band on the meeeaaan streets of Harvard. After getting much love playing gigs, the two main producers, Maxwell and A.D. decided that producing within the confines of instrumentality was cramping their style and limiting what they could do musically. Since then they reduced the crew to two, were courted by Kanye and signed by Pharrell. Planet Ill spoke to the guys on the verge of their latest release Music 4 Tngrs. Good guys with an understanding of music. We really enjoyed the convo.
Planet Ill: Chester French, that name is familiar. That guy used to make statues, no?
Max: Yeah we took our names [from him] we thought it was a bust of Daniel Chester French but it had actually been sculpted by him. We just took the name because we thought it was cool.
Planet Ill: Eastern Philosopher Phife Dawg said he’d never let a statue tell him how nice he was. How do you feel about people having opinions about your music?
D.A.: People have opinions about everything, you know? I think it’s cool that anyone would care to have an opinion about our music. That’s an honor in the first place if someone if going to bother to like or dislike something, given the vastness of our catalog of music and other things out there to have opinions about.
Planet Ill: You guys started out in 2003, that’s almost 10 years. You’ve had only one album but you’ve had an inordinate amount of attention beginning with the Pharrell signing. Are you still on Startrak?
Max: We’re not still on Startrak but we had actually, before that even happened we had been making music for about four years. And we put out a little EP that we made which was the first thing we produced as a band. We’ve since then first put out the album you mentioned and also a mixtape that we did with Clinton Sparks. This will really be the fourth body of music we’ve released since we’ve started.
Planet Ill: How has your sound evolved over the years? You started out as a band. The sound you do now has a lot more levels and layers to it. What led to the decision to ditch the analog?
Max: When we started out we were doing a thing where we were playing as a group and performing the songs live, both like recording in the studio as a band and playing out And at a certain point we started getting focused on making better recordings D.A. and I were the ones handling all the production and being at the studio. And as we had a smaller group of people in the studio it became less about, “Oh we have to have a piano part a drum part and a guitar part and more about the song” and like, “OK this is a totally open canvas and let’s just put the things that we think are interesting where we think they should go and not think about it necessarily like a band with instrumentation.”
Planet Ill: So it’s a different level of freedom?
Planet Ill: Let’s talk about some of your recent stuff now. That video for “Black Girls” was pretty intense. A lot of guys took that video home to the bathroom. What was the sentiment behind it? What made you go for that visual aside from the song itself?
Max: We just thought it was a difficult song to come up with a video for.
A.D.: Because obviously we didn’t want people to take it the wrong way and we intended this thing as a positive statement about interracial love or sex and dating and so we really wanted to do a video that kind of projected an image of feminine beauty and sexuality and didn’t feel exploitative. I think it was debated the day we put the video out but our hope was that we could create a message with a song through the two beautiful women that co-starred in the video were Rie Rasmussen and Jodi Smith and we just thought they did a great job.
Planet Ill: You and everyone else thought they did a great job. You probably picked the only visual for that song that nobody could bitch over.
A.D.: Like Max said, everybody has an opinion and there was no shortage of people who thought it was a terrible video. But that’s the point of art hopefully is to get people to think.
Planet Ill: how do you take negative energy?
Max: The interesting thing about naysayers is especially in our time when they’ve taken to the internet is that you don’t have to deal with them. I’m not waking up in the morning and patrolling the internet for information about this band or myself, let alone trolling for negative information. If somebody wants to spend their day going online and saying that we suck or some movie sucks or something else sucks, that’s their prerogative. It’s not my prerogative to hear people shitting on anybody’s art. I’ve never totally understood the point of negative criticism in art. I don’t really get what it does for us as a culture. I don’t have people knocking on my door saying, “Hey your band sucks!” So I’m not worried about it.
A.D.: Like Max said, I don’t see what the point is either. I think it’s one thing if you’re talking about the fine art world with paintings, where a difference of opinion about a particular painting can result in millions of dollars, plus or minus, in the sale of some work of art. We’re talking about music. These songs cost 99 cents. Say the song does suck and someone buys it. It’s like a negative review isn’t saving people from that mistake or anything. It’s just people hating. But that being said, when people shit on me and I’m aware of it, I punish myself.
Planet Ill: There was a track you had on Edo G and Masta Ace’s album a few years ago and I’m listening to the album and it’s hardcore and I’m listening to it and I hear “The White Girl Song” and I’m like WTF? I interviewed them and I said whose idea was it to put that song on and they said “because it was different.” I had to respect that answer. I think that’s the only kind of answer you can give to haters or people that don’t like it. “Because I could. And you listened to it.”
A.D.: You’re talking about the Masta Ace track? I mean that was just cool for us. We’re major Masta Ace and Edo G fans and Max and I are from Boston we spent a lot of time around there from college (Harvard). Working with those guys was just a super honor for us.
Planet Ill: When was the first time you walked into a place and you’re, like Pharrell’s my man and you have these people you’re with who have all types of accolades and hangers on and dick riders, and you’re along for the ride; swept in the tail of the comet? How does that feel, the first time you’re exposed to that?
A.D.: To me it points to how silly and arbitrary that whole thing is. The whole culture of celebrity and fame. It seems totally arbitrary. Because when we were in college and you have these producers and artists that we’ve looked up to for a long time telling us we’re the shit, I don’t think it really made us think, “Wow, we ARE the shit! We’re amazing, everybody should love us.” It was just kind of like, “Well, this is weird.” This isn’t as magical as I thought it was. If I’m allowed to be included in this it must not be that special.
Max: It’s like the Woody Allen quote about not wanting to be a member of any club that would have you as a member.
Planet Ill: What do you really enjoy about the music? When you get possessed to go in and make music, what kinds of feelings drive you? Is it just the creative process or is there something particular that stokes you?
Max: that’s an interesting question that I probably should have thought more about because I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours as an adult and even as I was a pubescent 6th grader doing music. I don’t know. The way I think about it is like music is a thing that people have been doing since before there was any written word. People have been making music and I think it’s just, I hesitate to use the word natural but it’s a primordial human activity that we’re for some reason drawn to and it’s addictive. It’s like crack or food or sex or TV or gambling. Once you start doing it a bunch, you get into it and it just takes on a life of its own. It becomes not AM I going to the studio today or why am I making this music and more like why WOULDN’T I do that? What reason would I have to NOT do that today? Usually there isn’t’ a good reason.
A.D.: Max and I are a little different too because Max can make music every day and doesn’t ever seem to get tired of it whereas I kind of… I don’t know. I was watching an interview with Neil Young this past weekend and one of the things he said that was very interesting was he was talking about Shubert and there’s a Shubert quote where he says “I don’t come up with music, I remember it.” You just have an idea that comes into your head. For me, I’ll just be walking around and some idea, whether it’s a lyrical thing or a melodic musical thing gets kind of stuck in my head and then you feel like you want that to exist in a better form than just in your head. We’ve approached making stuff from different angles and sometimes it’s just sort of organic like that and sometimes Max and I have found ourselves in a studio just banging out heads against the wall fighting for more ideas because the point of that day was to make something. I think people can get interesting results in a number of different ways. I think we experiment with how you can make cool things.
Planet Ill: Was there ever a song that you heard that started you on this path?
Max: I think from the time I started making music until the time I was 16 that was happening to me once a week. There’s so much music in the world and our generation is privileged enough to be one of the first that had easy access to all of that music. You read about what things John Lennon was into and for years that guy had a jukebox that was what he listened to and he had like 50 45’s in it. 50 singles and that was his whole universe of music aside from what he encountered in everyday life. We grew up having hundreds of gigs of music all around us from all over the world so it’s really easy when you’re discovering and learning that to get excited. The first time I heard John Coltrane I thought that’s what I want to do. Until I realized it wasn’t.
A.D.: I think Michael Jackson, still. I still get that feeling when iI hear Michael Jackson songs, in particular when I feel like this is exactly the sound that it would be great to make. You obviously don’t want to copy other people but there are these kinds of moments like the Beatles or Coltrane or things that Max and I always find ourselves coming back to. You know there are records that you get excited about and then you kinda get over it and then there are things for ten years, every year you rediscover it and you just remember how astonishingly special it is.
Max: I think it’s also part of growing up and artist to realize even though you wished you wrote certain songs or you wished you played certain parts and you realize you didn’t so it’s sort of your task to go “What is my contribution?” What can I do that is unique to me and is of value?
Planet Ill: You say Michael Jackson. There’s a marriage of soul and of pop there that is rarefied. How do you reach the masses and still keep your heart?
A.D.: I think part of being an artist and by that I mean thoughtful and creative person who makes things, you have to realize that you’re not a people pleaser. That’s what business people do. Artists create. You just have to make what is true to you and what you want to do and the people that you are creating with. I think as soon as people start trying to make something just to appeal to some economic segment, it immediately cheapens the value of what you’re doing in the first place. And there’s a difference too between an entertainer and an artist. And sometimes they may coincide but the Elvis impersonator maybe a better entertainer than Max and I are but we’re more focused on creation. Entertaining is just a way to present that creation. Luckily the fans that we have are not buying into necessarily a specific sound or a particular aesthetic; they’re more into the creativity that we try to represent or that we try to manifest in our music and the inventiveness or the diversity or whatever qualities they care about. It’s not about just a sound.
Planet Ill: The Devil offers you immortality in terms of your music; the chance to be remembered like the Beatles. Immortal like Michael or Elvis or James Brown. What would you give up to me mentioned in that kind of rarefied air?
Max: I would give up like current fame probably. It would probably be cooler to have an average middle class life and an artist and have your work remembered later as extraordinary. It’s probably better for you than to be celebrated.