Keep Calm and Kari On … with Chester French

Pop Culture, re:brand – America, TK:LDN

Skin… is a many layered thing; it is artistic, it is cultural, it is biological, it rests on the fragile fringe of one’s inner and outer space… not to be melodramatic, but we consider it an overlooked focus – an abstract opus – of cultural connective tissue.

So, for Art Nouveau’s Skin issue, we chose a duo who connected all of those elements in a most masterful manner: Chester French – black tears, faced fears, a pair so open-minded about the lovable future that their well-endowed brains have descended upon every listener’s ears. We had a chat with Max and D.A. to get an inside look at how they view those elements that make the epidermis so oddly endearing.

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When we come into this world, our skin is supple and soft, that unhindered remnant of divine design. For artists like Chester French, the first album is of that same fresh design. The label signs you because of that new-new you bring to this world. Musicians wear that skin like a manifestation of the self. Unlike the child though, an artist can craft their own primary skin; now more than ever though, it is getting harder to make that sonic aesthetic a signature different than all others.

KE: How important is it to build your own sonic aesthetic through your music, and what do you think your skin is in the industry?

CF: I think – to answer the first part of the question – I think for us it’s kind of important to try and carve out what is our territory creatively in terms of what we want to make and how we want it to sound. I think there’s so much music and so many people in music feel like they have to constantly be following, either super-new trends or really established ideas about how music should sound at a given moment. For us it’s way more important to find a sound that’s unique to us, than it is to “fit in” to any group, necessarily…

KE: Basically, my thing is this: skin is functional and fashionable. It is the first line of defense, but musically it is that very foundation of artistic identity which requires the greatest defense of all.

It’s one thing to look good, a freshman feat that Love the Future achieved, but it’s another entirely to make that good look last: enter Music 4 TNGRS.

KE: What is a TNGR, and what is this music you’re making for them from this standpoint?

CF: We weren’t originally going to abbreviate “teenagers” but when we wrote it out it looked a lot better that way. So, I don’t think our goal was – and people take it this way, they can – but I don’t think we intended to name a category. We were really referring literally to teenagers, and I think the album title for us felt right because as we made this record, I think we really just wanted to stay true to ourselves and we wanted to make something that, when we were in high school, we would’ve thought was incredible. Or that we would’ve thought was admirable or had integrity or creativity to it. And I think part of our frustration with this current moment is that there is a lack of artistry in the mainstream that has that sort of integrity y’know? Like when we were growing up we had Nirvana and other acts that were sort of solid, and that’s what we wanted to give our fans here with this record: something that was real true expression of where we were at, and what we thought was cool, and wasn’t adulterated by any other concerns really.

One thing French and Nirvana definitely have in common is their raw entrance into the pool – nothing separating the fish from the water, save their skin. Chester French are children no more though, and with that maturity comes the standard melancholy. The supple becomes susceptible to the inevitably acne, the skin becomes a battleground, zits appear as superficial war scars, each with their own tale of teenage lament. Sonically, the sophomore effort is much the same, tracks reflect a tainted veneer vulnerable to the industry pull – but within that transition is the tale of that trek upon newfound territory. The question remains, how to cover that – how to put a graphic face on this second skin?

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KE: So with the cover art, what was the concept?

CF: With the cover art, we were very lucky to work with this gallery artist names Jonathan Delotta, who’s made loads of art, loads for us – in general – that really blows us away.  There was an interesting poignancy there, in the title and given the reflexiveness of a lot of the lyrics. // One of the kind of lyrical through-lines of this record is a sort of honesty and sort of sadness… and a vulnerability. And I think part of what appealed to me creatively was that it, right now, most of the acts, and particularly acts that we are seen as affiliated with in the rap world, are just so about posturing and so much about this imaginary lifestyle. With both the music and the imagery here I think we send a statement that we kind of affiliate with the underdog, that speaks to us more than this over-celebratory thing.

Fundamentally, skin is biological; it is the ethnic tie that binds completely. Yet, Chester French speak to and from the stance of an increasingly post-racial culture… one that, despite love’s blind eyes, still falls under the judgmental eyes of a residual culture stuck in a rut of false nostalgia. Black is beautiful, but more importantly: beautiful is beautiful – whatever the shade – a notion defiantly marked by the group’s first single and video…

KE: “Black Girls” was your first single off the album, and in terms of the overall message of the album it really resonates strongly. So a bit about the song, where you all came from with that one, and also, why it was the first single and – most importantly – the video, the concept, Francesco, and Rie, and Jodie, how did all of those elements come together?

Max: In terms of the song, it was one of the first one’s we put together, both on the demo level and actually finishing it and we had always gotten really positive responses from it. D.A. can speak more to the lyrics, because that’s more his, but I think part of the reason that we wanted to put it out first was because it was – regardless of how any particular group or person reacts to it – there’s something disarmingly honest about it … it is very, very much, just lyrics where there is a person – defiantly even – stating his opinion in a completely heartfelt way. I think that was the right approach for us with this album: to put out something that is so very much personal, and so very honest, that you wouldn’t look at it as someone being a poser, or trying to be cool or trying to be someone they weren’t. Really, we felt like this, we really wanted to communicate with people and this song definitely is obviously honest communication.

D.A.: I think we also, from a lyrical standpoint, it was an important message, to me personally. Y’know Max and me are both involved in interracial relationships – or have been in the past – and there’s this whole generation where that’s accepted, but it’s still stigmatized in a weird way, or people still make jokes about it and see it as weird to particularly find black women beautiful or any type of – whatever it is. Our audience in particular, I think is a motley crew of people who aren’t “this” or “that:” they’re in the middle. And we’ve got a lot of fans who are white but are more into hip-hop, or we have a lot of black kids who love rock music, and that’s kind of the audience we speak to, or N.E.R.D. always spoke to, and that’s probably why we were fans of them. So, it was just a message that we felt, that crowd would appreciate, because I don’t think they have a voice in culture.

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CF: It’s funny too because the song. You make a song like ‘Black Girls’ and on the one hand – it’s a Catch 22 – where on the one hand you sort of destabilize the concept of race or the question or trivialize the significance, but by calling it “Black Girls” you’re affirming that it’s a thing. So, there’s a balance. Ultimately, I think our stance is that doesn’t particularly matter as far as love goes – it shouldn’t – and  and the real message of the song is that it shouldn’t matter who you love, or who you think is beautiful. That’s… a matter of taste.

KE: The other thing is you have to bring it to the fore, that’s the only way it enters the public discourse – because if it’s stigmatized it means people aren’t talking about it, which means at this point you’ve brought it to the front. It’s just that risk you take when you go out there … And again, it’s the honesty thing.

CF: The people who got mad, was a victory in my mind. It wasn’t because we wanted to create a controversial marketing play; it was just genuine. The fact that people had a strong reaction to it was the reason we made the song, because: why is that? If we made a song – I know of a really popular artist, who has a song called “White Girls” coming out on his new album. I’m not going to say who it is, but I can guarantee you: that’s not controversial. And with the video too, I mean – obviously the video’s provocative, but if you go and you watch the Chris Isaak video… “Wicked Game,” that video’s not banned on YouTube like ours is – the fact that it’s interracial, the fact that it’s same-sex is why it got age-restricted.

KE: I think it was really interesting because when I first saw the video, there was an honesty that it wasn’t necessarily a pigeonhole or stereotype. My little sister had a question for you guys. She’s sixteen, and she asked ‘Do you have a thing, would you have a thing, for albino black girls?’ … or is race just skin deep.

CF: Sure. I think albino people, that’s one of the people in cultures that people still feel like it’s okay to be unnecessarily mean to. I was reading something, recently, where – I wasn’t actually reading it that recently, it was like a year ago… but it was just talking about the percentage of roles in movies played by albinos where they’re demons or some kind of spiritual entity. It was more than half of the times the albino people are in movies, they’re playing demons; albino people rock.

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Chester French, making music for teenagers, musing on the meta side of physicality, lauding the lament, and at the end of the day – much like skin – a pair of worldly boys cultivating that fragile fringe between the individual and their environment.

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