Jose Gonzalez

Tuesday, 04 September 2007

“I started to doubt that I could even write at all,” Jose Gonzalez says with a reserved laugh as we speak about his new album, In Our Nature. “When I decided to stop touring, I went home in November and decided to stay home until I had the second record finished. And as soon as I started going to the studio on a daily basis, I realized why I liked music, why I liked playing music, because I almost forgot while touring as I really wasn’t writing, but more repeating the same songs over and over. It’s just a lot different creatively.” Jose says this to me over the phone from the Mute studios in New York City, where they seem to have him on a pretty intense press schedule. His English is still a little weary, but when you’re a musician and English is your second (or third?) language, it’s not about how well you can articulate to a journalist, but how well you can convey your thoughts and emotions through song.

After the world was introduced to Jose’s musical emanation by a commercial for Sony Bravia in 2005, where thousands or super balls were dropped in mass down the slanted streets of San Francisco, his debut record Veneer began to steadily climb the charts. The musical supervisor knew he was sitting on gold and no other song could’ve complimented this visual masterpiece as flawlessly as Jose’s version of fellow Swedes, The Knife’s “Heartbeats.” It set a fire to the musical community and made Veneer one of the most highly recommended albums of the past few years and set a level of anticipation for fans and critics alike, to see if this was just a fluke, or is Jose Gonzalez the real deal.

“It was quite a long time in between the records and I spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Jose explains, “and I now I think I was actually talking more about it than actually doing anything.” He said that there was a level of nervousness that set in when thinking about his next record, but that he should just do what he does best and try not to lose a grip on something he is perfecting. “I went from thinking about adding a lot of instruments and making it a more symphonic kind of record,” he says. “But then I got back to thinking that what I do best is guitar, and that there is more to explore with just guitar and vocals.”

Beyond the actual sound of In Our Nature, which of course resembles the effortless, lo-fi beauty heard on his debut, what stands out now more than anything is that he’s got a lot more to say. He also admits that on Veneer he didn’t even want the lyrics printed on the sleeve, but now with a more global point of view and the same musical intelligence, he knows his voice will be heard, stating, “I feel like I have so many thoughts this time. There are things I would want people to know about.”

Right off the bat, the first verse on the album’s opener “How Low” are: “Absorbed in your ill hustling / You're feeding a monster, just feeding your monster / Invasion after invasion / This means war.” One can easily speculate what this song could be about, so it wasn’t discussed. Other songs on the album, like “Killing for Love,” where he simply asks, “What's the point if you hate, die and kill for love?” You start to get the picture that Jose isn’t exactly content with the current state of Mother Earth. We discuss these themes and how they play into the record, but I’m more curious about why he’s so frustrated.

“As a person I’m pretty optimistic,” Jose says with good level of believability. “I feel like most of the time the world is heading in the right direction—like three steps forward, two steps back. But as an artistic expression it’s not that fun for me to write about, you know, beautiful flowers. So yeah, I get angry when I watch the news. If you were an alien and looked at the world and humanity, it should probably make you either laugh or cry.” It should be noted that this level of personal exploration goes way beyond CNN and Anderson Cooper.

Jose tells me that a book called The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins also had an effect on his songwriting. “The song ‘Arbram’ was inspired by that book,” he says. “I use the name Abram as an allegory for the Abrahamic religions. And I’m basically saying that the character is sleepwalking in the lyrics.” Touching upon such topics as war and world peace, as well as taking a jab at the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—which claim Abraham as a part of their sacred history, just goes to show that this man is not afraid to speak his mind, and like the folk singers of the 60s, if he sees something unsettling in the world, he’s going to let you know about it. “I don’t exactly want to change the world, but I want to convey feelings or have interesting topics. But I do search for stuff that is universal and just try to get to the core of things—I just end up singing about hate and problems.”

Later on he talks more about other influences that pepper In Our Nature, where he says, “Looking back I was also reading Practical Ethics by Peter Singer and watching a lot of podcasts on philosophy and astrobiology, and I think all those helped me work on my English and work on my language. I didn't intend to use it in my lyrics, but those thoughts on philosophy and religion ended up influencing my songwriting.”

Jose’s storytelling abilities are not accomplished just with song, he’s now venturing into conveying these thoughts and ideas through his videos, the first of which is for “Down the line.” I wanted to know where the premise of this video came from, as it is pretty heavy on the symbolism tip. “We [director Andreas Nilsson] sat down and talked about the lyrics and the whole record and my ideas. And he popped the idea, showing me the comics by Jim Woodring, so the character is inspired by one of those characters—half man, half pig.” Jim Woodring’s acclaimed comic book Manhog Beyond the Face was written in the early 90s and seemed to stick in Nilsson’s mind and ended up being a good outlet to convey Jose’s thoughts on the deadly sins, greed and many more sub-themes that are depicted in the video.

“You see that he’s not the perfect human,” Jose explains. “So you get the particular feeling that he’s steaming from something and burning up. In the second video for ‘Killing for Love,’ he bangs his head into the wall and after that he kinda starts seeing things everywhere.” What he means by that is, the pig man hits his head and starts hallucinating, running around naked chasing things that aren’t there, and eventually turns himpigself into a trophy with the help of some tin foil. I might need to watch this one a few more times for it to sink in. There are talks of doing a video for each song on the album, but Jose says it’s a matter of budget—of course.

In Our Nature is a beautiful record, but deals with some ugly themes. It’s not that he’s complaining or whining about it, but more trying to take initiative and see if his music can open up a few minds. He explains that it really is more about asking the question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” It might seem cliché, but when you pop on MSNBC and see war, murder, famine, flooding, incompetence, global warming, conspiracies and suicide bombers on an hourly basis, you begin to think maybe it’s time for all of us to take a little initiative and see what we can do to change the world. After all, it’s in our nature.

In Our Nature will be released September 25 on Mute/Peacefrog.

For more on Jose Gonzalez, including fall tour dates and videos, click here:

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