By B. Caplan
Unless Genghis Khan comes back to life in the next 48 hours, the most badass dude in Denver this weekend is going to be Cody ChesnuTT. No bones about it. That's Mr. ChesnuTT in the picture above. And he's cooler than you. Sorry. He wears an army helmet when he performs because he's "trying to fight to keep the soul alive." That's your soul, by the way. ChesnuTT, who lives in Flordia these days, recently chatted with our sister paper in Miami, and in advance of his performance at this weekend's inaugural Blacktop Festival at the DCPA, we've posted the interview below. Keep reading to get the story behind the helmet and what it's like to be the coolest dude in the history of ever.
Westword: So, the helmet. Where did you get it?
Cody ChesnuTT: An army surplus store on the corner in Tallahassee.
Did you try out different forms of headwear or types of helmets before settling on that one?
There was always just that one. I grabbed it without even thinking about the stage. I just gravitated towards it. I would wear it around the house. I like hats.
What sort of things would you do while wearing the helmet?
Anything. Writing. It just clicked and became a natural part of what I was doing. I'm really trying to fight to keep the soul alive. It became symbolic.
Has it ever come in handy to protect you from any sort of head injury?
No, it's never been like that. It's always been cool. It becomes a conversation piece. I've never had to use it to protect myself from injury.
What's it like being so cool?
I don't know, man. You should probably tell me.
Well, I'd imagine there's a lot of pressure stemming from the knowledge that when you hit the high notes, women's panties automatically drop, and the women might trip over them, and it would be your fault. I expect it must be drafty because you wear a lot of cardigans. Errands must be hard to do, because when you walk through the streets, people crowd around you and carry you on their shoulders to the steps of City Hall where they expect you to make a speech and sing a song, when all you wanted to do was pick up your dry cleaning. That, and I expect you get a lot of free desserts when you go out to eat.
No, you're a million miles away. It's just life. I don't think about being cool. I just live it. I just walk it. Whatever is cool is, I don't know. It's cool to write children's books and be out working in the community. It's trying to keep a cool head.
You have a new song called "What Kind of Cool Will We Think of Next." What kind of cool will we think of next?
I have no idea. I'm still waiting. It's getting to the point that everything is starting to look alike. If you find out before me, let me know, okay?
How much responsibility do you feel toward all the children who will be conceived to your new album?
I just hope the children take away from this project that humanity and human dignity has value and always had value. It should be protected and championed, our humanity, from the pressures, inventions, government policies that cloud our perception.
The last time you played in Miami, your band was so large that it couldn't fit on the stage and had to play out in the audience. In an ideal world, how big would your band get? Would everyone be in your band?
What you saw was the core. The only thing I would add when resources allow are strings. I love strings. I'd love to bring a percussion player and a few strings, so we could communicate the whole listening experience of the album live.
Granted, The Headphone Masterpiece came out ten years ago. You haven't really been playing those songs lately. Can you still connect with them?
I want to be consistent when I play a show. Some of those songs are still worth revisiting to me.
"When I Find Time," I think is a very, very relevant song. And not too far away from where my heart is now. I can play that song now and not feel any conflict. That is definitely one that stands out to me. And I've never played it live.
I just never got around to it. But if you bring this message, this feeling, this soul, you don't want to start mixing it with the meta because it will become a distraction. I definitely prefer to keep this live experience on Landing on a Hundred.
How conscious was the shift in style and content for you from the first album? Was it just something that happened over the course of a decade and those EPs?
It was pretty conscious. I felt it bending. I felt it was time for the next thing. Most writers and artists, I think, are always thinking of the next thing. The EPs bridge; they work to connect the two experiences.
You now live in Florida. How much has being here influenced your lifestyle and music?
It definitely has influenced my lifestyle and that has an influence on the music. It's North Florida, so it's a little more on the rural side. I'm in the country and it's quiet and peaceful and I get to reflect and listen more than I can in the city. It was the perfect spot for me to transition to into a new body of work. It brought me the clarity and focus I needed.
What did you focus on?
On being what's important to me. Being out there helped me be one with my thoughts and to document that. That's the greatest lesson from The Headphone Masterpiece, that I had to be sincere about what I was feeling. I had to be truthful.
How do you actually spend your time up in North Florida?
It's a combination. It could be as something as simple as walking around. We're in the middle of lots of oak trees and pine trees and to be surrounded by this greenery is always healthy and inspiring. It's a reminder of what is truly real. And that's what helped me the most. And it allowed me to really think that life is living it as I was living it.
What do you feel more connected to these days?
Situations, family. My son and my daughter. The strength that it takes to make it through the day, to sort out whatever issues your friends and family may be facing on a human level. Those are things that I really want to tackle. Not the superficial pop side of things that are dominating the airwaves. Marriage, trying to make that work. Balancing a passion and being a parent. Concerns about what's happening in the community. I took a lot of time to observe and to listen to what other people were saying that was important.
One of the things that really stands out on the album is that even when you're dealing with somewhat dark subject matter like smoking crack, there's a triumphant sensibility and a joy in getting through it. How necessary was it for you to have that in the music?
On this album, everything is not autobiographical. I drew from people around me, their own battles with addiction, their struggles, and what it took for them to find balance. Balancing on the tightrope and trying to find the common denominator, what can we agree upon at a human level. I wanted to touch on and try to address it as simply as possible and directly as possible. To offer what I felt in terms of inspiration to work through it or to offer some kind of change in your life. If I made it through, I wanted to show other people that they could too. What do you think about it?
It's really inspiring, that's the only way to put it. They're great songs. But more than that, I think this is music that can do things for a person and can help them change. I felt different after listening to it. Better.
I think that's great because the aim that I was going for was working to make these really deep issues really accessible and to make people think about it, even if they haven't smoked crack or been bogged down in addiction. To make them look at their own situation and if they have any hurdles of their own and they can draw on the songs as inspiration.
How did you make it through?
My personal thing is something that has been said a million times. You cannot lose faith, you cannot lose hope. It is what allows me to make it every single day. It's my passion. This record, I would like for it to be a great example of faith and faith applied and really applying the faith. You have to really put faith to work, not just have faith.
And you found it.
People are sometimes looking for that. On some level, though, people are looking to be human again. It's so much the invention and the machine and how fast it movies. But we haven't figured out how to be human yet, to be the best humans we can be.
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