Chet Doxas, arguably one of Montreal’s most illustrious saxophonists, left my endearing hometown three years ago, off to pursue his dream in the bigger and better pastures of the Big Apple. His first project since his self-imposed exile, entitled Rich in Symbols, is set to drop September 8th on Ropeadope Records.
Rich in Symbols is as unique in sound as it is in concept. The entirety of the albums is inspired by the art movement of New York City’s Lower East Side between the years 1975 and 1985. Sitting in art galleries and museums throughout New York City, Doxas pondered and composed music, all the while asking himself: “ What do paintings sound like ?” The result is Rich in Symbols, a genre-bending, thought-provoking record produced by Liam O’Neil (Kings of Leon, Metric, Broken Social Scene) and featuring Matthew Stevens (guitar), Zack Lober (bass), Eric Doob (drums) and special guests, John Escreet on piano, trumpeter Dave Douglas and guitarist Dave Nugent.
To mimic Doxas’ creative process, I sat down on my couch with a notepad and a sharpie and listened to the album from beginning to end all the while jotting down all the questions which popped into my head. Doxas was kind enough to play along and the following interview emerged from our exchange.
Sebastien Helary: Which specific works of art inspired you for the album?
Chet Doxas: I chose works from NYC between the years 1975-85 because i’m excited by the way that art and music co-existed and informed each other during that period . For example, on September 7th, we’re playing a new song inspired by a subway mural by Fab 5 Freddy. Others include a piece for a Robert Mapplethorpe self-portrait called “Orchard” and another for a picture by Robert Longo called, “Dancing the Roof”, inspired by his series called “Men in the City”.
SH: The album is truly unique and genre-bending. What are some of your major influences? Who are artists you look up to and admire?
CD: I wrote exactly what was in my head and my heart and tried to listen to what I really wanted to say. If it came out as sounding unique, that makes me happy to hear. It was very hard and easy at the same time. Some lessons learned, for sure. So many songs in the trash can! Influences…. wow, ummmm. Here’s a recent short list of stuff that I’m listening to: Arca, Evan Parker, The War on Drugs, Massive Attack, Dave Douglas, Carla Bley, my brother, Steve Swallow, Blondie, LCD Soundsystem, Metric, Sam Roberts Band, Danny Brown, Richard Strauss, Brian Eno, Nicole Lizee, Sonny Rollins, and my bandmates projects Matthew, Zack and Eric.
SH: What’s your favorite track on the record?
CD: Boy… “While you were Sleeping” makes me smile because I can hear how much fun we’re all having. But then I also like all the tunes because we took a long time to get it right. The producer, Liam O’Neil, and I were very conscious of the type of sound we were going for, warm but tough too. The album was recorded mostly at Avatar in NYC and at Metric’s private studio in Toronto as well as my dad’s in Montreal and at the Samurai Hotel in Queens. We had the luxury of more time than your average jazz recording session. Stretches of 5 days at a time or more allowed us to write and experiment in the studio and this informed many of the choices that we made as we were going along.
SH: How has moving to NYC affected your career and your artistic vision? What are some of the challenges you now face? For people outside of NYC, do you feel coming here is a necessity to advance your career?
CD: Well…. NYC definitely has a way of testing your mettle. I’m trying to take advantage of being surrounded by so many creative people and instead of competing, stay energized by their dedication to their art and try to present myself as honestly as I can. Although there are many musicians here, music is a lot like painting in that there will always be an audience for work that stands out as individual and honest. The more clear I can be with what I’m trying to put out to people, the better the experience is for everyone.
SH: What motivates you to work on your craft and to persevere as an artist? How do you overcome obstacles?
CD: Depends on the obstacles. I feel like it’s never been harder to be a musician then right now, from a business standpoint. Due to the fact that people stopped paying for music which in turn gutted the rest of the industry in different ways. That being said, it’s never been easier to stay inspired because of all the wonderful artists sharing their work on various online platforms. That, That, being said… The distraction of online content can be a pitfall that prevents people from looking into oneself and studying your individualism. What motivates me these days is being around artists like Carla Bley, for instance, who take their time to listen to their thoughts and work very hard at presenting them and distilling them as clearly as possible. Personality + Clarity = something good, I don’t know what yet.
SH: What is your opinion about the state of jazz music today compared to when you began your career?
CD: When my brother Jim, Zack Lober and I started working in Montreal, we were working non-stop from the time that we were 18 years old. Although we all had a band together, ByProduct, we were usually playing 5 nights a week with other people’s bands, radio shows, or TV spots. That’s what was cool about growing up in MTL. One night you could be playing at Casa del Popolo and the next with Rufus Wainwright or…..wait for it….. with Michael Bolton at the Bell Centre. It seems like not as many of those different opportunities exist for young musicians. Most of the work we did when we were coming up was jazz but I dug all of those different settings. As far as the state of jazz goes, I think people are starting to be more open to the idea and seek out more music that is soley instrumental. I, for one, don’t feel like I need to be sung to much anymore. I like music that lets me find my own way. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate an awesome pop song but I think that more people might be starting to tire of industry-driven pop music because of the amount of choices they have. Just look at the movie business: every second movie is a super hero movie now because they saw it work a few times. Now, people are starting to go cold on that model and curating their own experiences, be it through netflix or online providers. I think people can spot, now more than ever, when they’re being targeted and they don’t like it, who would. In this regard, I think that people are starting to treat their musical experiences this way and starting to dig a little bit deeper.
SH: What brings you joy in life?
CD: My Family and Art. When I stand in front of paintings, I feel radiant happiness and hear music. That, to me is, pure joy. My wife and two daughters are very supportive with what I do and are constant sources of laughter and fun.
SH: Do you have any advice for younger musicians who want to dedicate their lives to music?
CD: Here’s what I know so far…. it should be noted that I don’t really know anything.
1. Study how music works, especially the parts that you love. If you hear something that moves you, know that it might not move someone else…. that’s called individualism. Stop the recording and become an expert in what you heard and start learning how to “speak” that language. Rinse and repeat.
2. If you feel competitive or ever have negative thoughts about another musician’s success in my experience, it usually means that you’re not working hard enough. The more you practice, the more you’ll sound like yourself and be happy and inspired to hear other individuals. Each voice like a different painting in a museum.
3. Everyone younger than me is better at online stuff than I am but I notice that people are becoming more creative with the content that they share rather than shitty iphone vids. It’s fun to watch. Keep up the good work on the Interweb, kids. I’ll try to too.
4. Give people credit by being yourself. Everyone loves and is ready to be moved. Play like yourself, people will feel like you shared something with them… because you have. Don’t try to play like other people, it doesn’t work.
5. Be an artist first, then figure out all that other grownup bullshit. or never figure it out. Let your mind wander to the outer limits and write down your thoughts. Please do this in a different room than your computer.
6. Joe Lovano once told me: “when you play, get your ideas from the other musicians that you’re playing with and the song you’re playing”. I thought that was worth sharing here.
SH: As a nod to Pannonica, if you had three wishes, what would they be?
CD: Let’s narrow this down to musical wishes, if that’s alright.
1. Make living more affordable for artists so that artistic communities could thrive like they once did in cities around the world. That way, more scenes could take off once they had had the time to incubate. Not too far fetched. An artist stipend, of sorts. Especially since people aren’t paying for music anymore.
2. More funding for music programs in schools. I think that the earlier that kids are moved by music and the arts, the better. Unlocking these deeper levels of emotion in a kid can only inspire them to become a more critical thinker and examine the world around them in a more personal and tolerant way.
3. Meet Tim and Eric.
SH: Who do you regret never seeing in concert?
CD: John Coltrane. I can barely write that without getting emotional. It must have been so powerful and profound. From anyone I talk to, it was life changing.
SH: What are some of your favorite TV show and books? What are you watching and reading right now?
CD: I just finished reading the book “Please Kill Me”, a book about the NYC punk/no wave scene of the 70s and 80s. Awesome read for any music fan! Art and music going full speed ahead, and sometimes off of a cliff! Now I’m reading a biography on Abraham Lincoln and another book called Siddhartha. I like podcasts a lot. particularly, Uncle Paul’s Jazz Closet (hosted by Paul Motian’s niece), Dave Douglas’ A Noise from the Deep (the one with Lovano is deep), Marc Maron WTF and Norm MacDonald Live.
SH: Do you practice every day? For how long?
CD: I practice as much as i can. Sometimes all day and then I’m the happiest person you’ve ever met, sometimes I can’t some days. I practice a lot of clarinet because it’s like training with those heavy orange pucks in hockey camp. You get back to the regular black pucks and it’s a piece of cake. I also write a lot. Try to write something every time I practice.
SH: What are some of your objectives for the future?
CD: I’ve got some projects in the works right now that would fall more into the realm of art projects, I guess. One involves video loops. The other is an improvising project that will involve 100 people. In the meantime, I’m re-scoring 90’s commercials for fun. There are so many great commercials from the early 90’s that must have cost a fortune and it’s fun to try and change the vibe of them through music…. I know that’s a weird one, I’m a big Tim and Eric fan.
We’d like to thank Chet for his participation in this interview. Rich in Symbols drops September 8th on Ropeadope and album launches are scheduled on September 7th in Montreal at Artgang and September 9th in NYC at NuBlu.