Culture Magazine

An Interview With Chris Chandler - "America's Best Kept Secret" On Stage at the West Coast Eisteddfod

By Americymru @americymru

Chris Chandler with Paul Benoit

AmeriCymru: Hi Chris and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. How would you describe your stage performance for our readers?
Chris: Describing my stage show would be like describing an opera by reciting the plot.
When I am on the road I find myself performing in a number of different venues. Seedy Bars, Union Rallies, Political Protests, Public Libraries, people's living rooms and (a first for me) in a fancy theatre competing in a Welsh Eisteddfod.
So, with all of these different types of venues I would say my performance is well… a gas… meaning it fits the shape of its container.
In a perfect world, I have a full band and a video projector (I am also a film maker, as well as songwriter)
My stories interact with both the band and the video – and of course the audience.
I think of it as collage. When it is done right the elements of the collage will break the plane of each other – till one definitive picture emerges. The seams are blurred, masked till the National Geographic aboriginal is seated on top of a Budweiser ad from Sports Illustrated at The Caernarfon Castle reading The Saturday Evening Post.

AmeriCymru: Your debut in show biz was working with the Georgia Satellites. How did that come about and what was your experience with them?

Chris: I wouldn't say I made my debut with the Satellites but they did on occasion bring me up on stage. Ya see I grew up in Georgia (USA) when I was OH, 13 or so I had a desire to hang out with the bands that practiced in the various garages in my neighborhood.
Well, up the street there was this one band – ya know a garage band – average age of about 16. They were called Pythagoras – it was the 70s and the sort of philosophical concept rock was popular amongst adolescents who had never read a book and the closest thing to a literary reference they could make was J R R Tolken. And I wanna take this opportunity to apologize to each and every one of you for my entire generation for being the ones that brought you STYX, REO Speedwagon, and Journey.
Now ya gotta keep in mind here that the difference between a thirteen year old and a 16 year old is great– so I as a skinny, hyperactive 13 year old had to have a reason to hang out in the basement with Pythagoras – or as we said in Stone Mtn – Pie –thug -orus.
Well, it was around Christmas – and me in my juvenile delinquent wisdom devised a plan – I would become the light man – and I went through the suburbs and stole all the Christmas lights in three upscale subdivisions. – I was sort of a blonde haired juvenile delinquent grinch – stealing Christmas for so that rock and roll would live forever – at least in the basements of Stone Mtn Ga. Ya see – I proceeded to take those Christmas lights into my high school shop class and built a light show. Soon every garage band in Redan High School could not consider throwing a keg party with out first contacting the light man.
As it turned out fate would soon become destiny and the bass player for one of the bands I worked with had an older brother in a bonafied bar band called – the Weasels – so at the age of fifteen I made my first fake ID and got a job with the Weasels. They played every Wednesday at a bar called Hedgen's– and I found myself hanging out there on other nights.
One Monday Night in December we were sitting around watching Monday night football when Howard Cossell comes on and announces to the world that John Lennon had been killed.
A couple of folks picked up some instruments and began playing. They vowed to play every Monday night at Hedgens It turned out to be Keith Christopher, Rick Richards Dan Baird and David Micelson. What would soon to be known as the Georgia Satellites formed that night. Soon Monday Night at Hedgen's was the thing to do. It was packed. I mean packed. The bars don’t close till 4 AM in Atlanta and they often locked the door after that. I typically left the bar in time to get to my high-school home room class.
Granted I was a kid – which in and of itself had a certain charm to it. I fancied myself a poet – I remember meeting a guy named Phil Rockstroh there. He was the first professional writer I had ever met. I showed him my work and he wadded it up and threw it on the floor.
He told me to go home and write about what I knew.
Yes, step one is write what you know. Step two is know something.
Anyway, the Satellites – along with other local Atlanta bands did on occasion – bring the kid up to read a few poems. That is where I first started performing. But – the thing is – I had never seen anything else – I just assumed it was always like that.
Well now 30 some odd years later – and having played to my fare share of empty (and full) houses. I know all too well that that is not the case.
AmeriCymru: You work on stage with musical accompanist Paul Benoit. What brought you together?
Chris: I had first met Paul in my mid twenties. He is a virtuoso guitarist – world class slide and blues player. His band and mine were playing some of the same festivals.
Well, I have had the good fortune of working with a number of terrific players in my band: Anne Feeney, David Rovics, Samantha Parton (The Be Good Tanyas) to name a few.
When he heard I was looking for a new music partner he volunteered. We have worked together (though not exclusively) for about three years – he produced our first album together "So, Where Ya Headed?" and is now working on producing our second (Tentatively titled "Matadors")
Our styles mix well. He is a calming influence. His deep roots help ground my flighty rhetoric.
AmeriCymru: You have worked with some amazing performers in the past. Care to tell us about your association with one or two of them? Lets start with Utah Phillips.

Chris: I had met Bruce a few times at festivals and such over the years – I doubt he remembered me – but I was a big fan. I was still either volunteering at the festivals or maybe booked on one of the side stages. But I was lucky enough to have some of the main stage performers invite me up during their set to read a poem. People like the Austin Lounge Lizards, Catie Curtis, Trout Fishing in America, Martin Sexton, Peter Yarrow. This happened often enough that I managed to put out a CD with me reading poetry on top of a different act on every song. Folks like Dar Williams and Dan Bern. It's called "Collaborations." Utah came across my CD while he was doing his radio show "Loafers Glory." That was about the time I started working with Anne Feeney – who Utah called "The Greatest labor singer in North America."" And he is right. It is true. He came out to a few of our shows and even had us open for him a few times. Brilliant man. His grasp on the complexity of the labor struggle – which when you boil it all down is the only struggle – and his ability to distill that complexity into its simplest terms – while making you laugh – is astounding,
"The long memory is the most radical idea in America."
AmeriCymru: Allen Ginsberg?

Chris: I was a Street musician in the mid – late eighties. I had been playing the subways in New York and Boston for a few years and was starting to develop a reputation for being both political and funny – which got me into a few clubs. One in particular – the Wetlands in New York City. I would come in on occasion as an opening act – do a few of my funny political protest songs and then pass the hat.
The booker at the club seemed to like me.
Shortly after Abby Hoffman died The Wetlands did a little tribute to him – and they had Allen Ginsberg, William Kuntsler, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Norman Mailer, and Barbara Erinreich and well… me.
They wanted to put a young person on the bill that Abby had influenced. So I got to be on stage in a sort of round robin with these seriously heavy hitters.
The place was packed, I was petrified. The thing about Wetlands is – it had a mural against the back wall that looked like more people. They put speakers out on the streets so the crowd that couldn’t get in could hear.
In true Abbie fashion – I told the crowd I lived in a car and was trying to make it to some political event or other (which was true) and I passed the hat to this very large crowd as I played a song called Watergate Generation which was about NOT being part of the 50s-60s radical levitate the Pentagon, poetry banned and going to the supreme court, representing the Chicago 6, Black Panther Party, American Indian Movement, New Journalism, Ms Magazine, Mother Jones, Village Voice, New Democratic Socialist movement .

Ginsberg laughed – thought it was a gutsy move – he said nice things about my work – I was well – he wrote the single greatest American poem of the 20th Century – needless to say – speechless.
A few years later we had managed to talk him into doing a few lines on my first CD (As Seen on No TV) but the scheduling didn’t work out. I am still sad by that.
AmeriCymru: Ani Di Franco?

Chris: I came across her first in the late 80s at an open mic in Boston. A place called The Naked City. She was traveling around in a car – playing the streets – same as me.
We exchanged Cassette tapes.
Our paths would continue to cross for the next few years - we wound up on the same song swap at a festival in Winnipeg. They always do that – out the weirdoes on the same stage together. That is the only time she and I ever collaborated. Years later, she produced a friend of mine's CD (a fellow Los Angelian ) Dan Bern.
She did a great job – but I was just hanging out – I did not really contribute anything creatively.
Dan did however wind up on this collaborations CD I made that I mentioned earlier.
Ani and I were both road rats at the same time – we were bound to cross paths and we did.
AmeriCymru: Who do you listen to for relaxation? Any recommendations?
Chris: The Cramps.
AmeriCymru: Who do you read or what are you reading currently?
Chris: I just finished Dylan's Chronicles and am in the middle of Alexander Corday's A Matter of Wales series.
AmeriCymru: We learn from your website that you have been described as 'America's Best Kept Secret' by someone who wishes to remain anonymous. Any clues? Any thoughts on that description?
Chris: Oh, I know why they want to remain anonymous. Kinda like Wikki Leaks.
AmeriCymru: Any plans to visit the UK?

Chris: Yes, soon I hope. Jen and I had a great trip there last fall. It was the first time I had been there since I was a teenager – when I went there playing Soccer on an all star team. I want to go back. I see Wales as the West Virginia of the UK. As a southerner – I think highly of West Virginia. She, like Wales has a rich history. Poor but cantankerous, rebellious, triumphant.
AmeriCymru: What's next for Chris Chandler?
Chris: Tomorrow afternoon I am going to see the Saints play here in Oakland. No, seriously… I am working on this new CD I mentioned with Paul Benoit – I hope to have it out by Christmas. Jen and I hope to make it to the UK this year – I would love to do my show there – but I haven’t done it yet. I am crossing my fingers.
I am working on a few short films for David Rovics and Anne Feeney (two of the truly great protest singers of our time – if not all time).
I would like to pull off a one man lay for fringe festivals. – I have a raft of projects on my plate. I would love to clean that plate – clean enough so I don’t have to do dishes. I hate doing dishes.
Interview by Ceri Shaw Email

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