Jose Gonzalez is a very unassuming kind of guy off-stage. He lets me sit in the fancy cushy chair during our interview, and he smiles politely after every question he answers.
Words and photos by JENZ
Performing, however, his quiet energy is heightened and transferred into his axe plucking. He sincerely looks like he's just on stage twiddling with his fingers, when in actuality, he's strumming along the strings of his guitar at such a speed of grace and precision it's hard not to gape. At his Yoshi's Tuesday night early show, he pops up on stage unannounced, picks up his main instrument, and starts playing â€“ no introductions, no greetings. It's not rude so much as just apart of his methodology that is glossed with being reserved. Gonzalez's playing power is both quiet and steady, and based on the first show of a four gig run at the Oakland venue, I'd say his approach is successful.
After playing a few songs solo, two additional musicians join him on stage to complete a mini-ensemble. The vibe decidedly changes, but Gonzalez and his guitar, which is beautifully fit as a natural extension of his body, is still main stage. After sifting through "It's In Our Nature," he jokes with the audience "This next song is one of my favorite songsâ€¦we all wrote it together. It's very nice" before launching into "The Nest."
Heavier laden guitars like "Down The Line" with the line "Don't let the darkness eat you up" provides a different depth to Gonzalez's usual acoustic-preferred style during the show. Track "Deadweight" is also a gem live, with Gonzalez's proclamation of "There's nothing between the sheets" being coupled with a separate percussion rhythm he's double-timing while playing. But his humor is also not forgotten, and he mentions his sighting of sea lions earlier in the day by commenting "They reminded me of dogs, all scratching [themselves]" before emitting a low growl in imitation. After waving to the crowd, who were in standing ovation and hoping for an encore, Gonzalez returned to play The Knife's "Heartbeats" cover, "Killing For Love," and Bronski Beat cover Smalltown Boy."
Towards the end of the set I start to nod off, but I think that's okay with Gonzalez. It's soothing for the soul, glistening for the mind, and wonderful to see live. Check out our pre-show interview below where we talk about disciplining plants, sea lions, and falling asleep to music.
There's always some stereotypes I read about people from Sweden. We're melancholy, we're introverts, our music being very serious. But that is only sometimes â€“ I can be goofy.
JENZ: You started a Ph.D in biochemistry. What would you have done with that degree?
JOSE: I stopped studying in 2003. I'm not really intending to go back and work on it at the moment.
Was your goal to make music exclusively for scientists who work in labs?
No, I made it for people, but if people want to play it for plants, thenâ€¦wait, what?
There is a study done where people play different kinds of music, and some kinds made the plants grow faster.
Really? You'd have to touch them too, right?
Well, yeah. I think.
Well, not like this (proceeds to pretend to smack a fan on a nearby table on its sides) but more with care (strokes the fan lovingly). You know? [laughs]
[laughs] Yes. Care for it. Be nice to it, of course.
Did you feel a duality in being Argentinian, and living in Sweden?
Well, I was born in Sweden â€“ I spoke Spanish at home, yes, and Swedish was my first language. But I never felt a disadvantage living all my life. It was something positive as I got older by knowing two languages, and I know more about culture.
You did a split EP with fellow Swede Jens Lekman. What kind of trouble would Jens and Jose get into if they were left alone?
[laughs] He would probably ask me to do a duet with him, or something â€“ that is trouble enough! We grew up in the same suburb of Gothenburg, we actually went to the same kindergarten. His parents invited me to dinner. It was nice.
What are some misconceptions about you?
There's always some stereotypes I read about people from Sweden. We're melancholy, we're introverts, our music being very serious. But that is only sometimes â€“ I can be goofy. I enjoy watching South Park or David Cross. When I'm touring I like to catch up on my Borat and Ali G, maybe Team America.
That being said, what has touring taught you?
You learn how to spend the day at the airport. You also learn how to time your eating so you're not stuck in the middle of the road with nothing.
How excited are you about celebrating Brazil's Samba Soul movement in Brooklyn in December, being apart of the Red Hot & Rio?
Oh, very much! I was approached by Red Hot & Rio to be apart of it. I'm going to be singing in Portuguese, which I have never done before, so I don't know. It's close enough to Spanish though. And [the event] also gives me an excuse to be in New York for a whole week!
It's your first time in the East Bay. Are you scared of being in Oakland?
We actually took the Oakland-San Francisco ferry in, so we saw the sea lions. I didn't know everything [in the Bay Area] is pretty close. Bimbo's in San Francisco, Lombard Street are actually pretty close to the ocean. We actually saw this group of guys in wheelchairs â€“ there was a real fat guy who was like, squeezed into his chair, but also eating chips. He'd drive his chair, then stick his hand back in the bag for more chips. I don't know if you are supposed to laugh or cry about those sorts of things.
Are you worried your music makes people fall asleep? Because it is that lovely?
[laughs] Or because it's so fill-in-the-blank? I like to think "non-invasive." I enjoy music that is energetic, but I also like the kind that in a sense is inviting. The album [In Our Nature] is short, but compact. People I think have an experience when they listen to music, but it can just also be in the background. So, it's not offensive to fall asleep to me. Good! I mean, [Estonian composer] Arvo PÃ¤rt is amazing "falling asleep" music.
The Gutter Twins just recently covered you for their Adorata EP, and you've also done some very respectable covers as well. Is it weird that everything seems to be coming full-circle?
[laughs] It's fun. I have their version and have met them too. I love it, actually. Greg Dulli [from GT] said to me, "It's time someone covered you." What an honor.