He's an avant-garde music legend and creator of the electric rake, but Eugene Chadbourne’s music may not attract more than a so-called cult following of true music fanatics. Just don't say that around the musician himself.
“I have always thought the use of this word (cult) in reference to people with informed, specific interests in music, films, books, art, scenery and so forth was cutesy-cutesy,” Chadbourne says. “It is a way of putting down people who learn about things. Just because a bunch of people like Ben Webster on tenor saxophone doesn't mean he has a cult.
“The following I know about,” Chadbourne says of his fans, exists in “a few places, large and small, in quite a few countries, and there will be three or four people at least that have heard of me, which is pretty amazing considering what I started out from.”
Chadbourne’s career has always existed in relative obscurity since his days playing improvisational jazz in New York City with Henry Kaiser and John Zorn, and on through his stint with the band Shockabilly, playing avant-garde versions of rockabilly songs.
“I don't know what being a non-underground artist is like,” Chadbourne says. “There is definitely freedom in being kind of unknown, nobody following your every move and nobody thinking they can trick a bunch of dough out of you.”
While Chadbourne has released music through traditional record labels, he has been successful in distributing his own music on cassettes and CD-Rs.
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“I (never) stopped working with record labels,” Chadbourne says. “I have a pretty thriving business going licensing material and still engage with labels about various projects when they come to me with a strong interest in something specific that I am doing or could do.”
He says self-publishing on cassettes gave him the freedom to do anything he wanted without the need to discuss with anyone else. That do-it-yourself spirit drives both Chadbourne’s music and his expansive tour schedule. Chadbourne says his fans make him feel welcomed wherever he goes.
“After enough years, you figure out what works for you, how you like to travel, how you like to proceed, where you like to go, you tend to make good decisions as the thing unfolds," Chadbourne says.
“I have also had ongoing conversations with musicians from different styles of music about what different audiences are like. Without getting too specific, I am told certain audiences could be described as ‘baskets of deplorables,’ while the people who like my music seem basically well-adjusted.”
His fans may be well-adjusted, but Chadbourne says he has had some bad luck in Dallas.
“I was wondering today whether it is actually true that my rate of getting fired offstage is higher in Dallas and environs than anywhere else in the world," Chadbourne says. "It is a truism that if you play a bar at the beach nobody will listen to you, but they won't fire you.”
Chadbourne remembers being fired when Shockabilly opened for Brave Combo in a mall outside Dallas. He says he still has the note written on a napkin that says "STOP NOW OR I'LL CUT THE POWER."
“I also played with Brave Combo at — I think it was the Dada Club,” he says, “and the guy told me my set was fine and I could stop at 30 minutes, which in Texas is like not even playing.
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“I also remember Shockabilly getting thrown out of someone's house early in the morning in Denton. That was when Henry Lee Lucas was being held in the prison there. I remember thinking my band was worse off than a serial killer; he at least had a place to stay.”
However, it has not been all bad for Chadbourne in Dallas.
“The last time I played in Dallas was great though,” Chadbourne says. “The Gonzalez family band played, too. I got a great reception.”
Chadbourne will team up with the Gonzalez family again and play Wednesday in Denton at BackYard on Bell and Thursday in Dallas at Top Ten Records.