“After the success of Chill’em All, I went out of my way to try and do complicated and different stuff. I wanted to prove to people that I could surprise them every time, show them I was good-looking and smart. How stupid!”
Champion doesn’t mince words. We interviewed the musician in the wake of the release of his new electro pop album Best Seller – a title that’s not meant to be taken literally – and he analyzes his own work with astonishing candour. As if to prove his own implacable self-criticism, he even says one of the songs on his newest album “sucks.”
“No, really,” he says. “‘Lead On’ is not a great song. I would’ve loved working on it longer, but I did have fun making it. I take full responsibility for it.” We tell him the ethereal guitar melody is great, and that his discombobulated singing brings a soulful element to the song, but the man border guards call Maxime Morin is still skeptical. “OK, I’ll give another listen,” he says.
Just like three other tracks on this album – including “Life is Good” – “Lead On” sounds like it should be on an album that could’ve been launched immediately after the legendary Chill’em All (2004). But that record never came out. After working on it for a few months, Maxime completely trashed his work in the wake of an intense bout of artistic questioning. He cleaned the slate and instead came out with Resistance after years of waiting. As he readily admits, he fell into an intellectual trap.
“I flushed everything I had worked on because, in my mind, it was too close to Chill’em All,” he says. “Also, I was flabbergasted by Ratatat’s Classics and I was no longer sure where I fit. I’ve always believed in spontaneity and simplicity. That’s what Chill’em All was all about. But by that point, I had completely forgotten about those nice concepts. The drive to please, to be relevant and avant-garde weighed me down like a ton of bricks. The worst part is, when you tweak and refine your creations, it’s easy to start thinking you’ve got a good thing going, when it’s actually quite the opposite.”
Having accumulated a lot of slack in his production schedule, Champion had to work non-stop in order to launch Resistance in the fall of 2009. Totally exhausted by the creative process, he jumped without pause into a tour. The rest, as they say… In May 2010, doctors diagnosed him with a type of lymphoma, cancer of the blood. “Some will say there’s no causality, but I chose to believe there is one,” he says. “Mental and physical exhaustion made me ill. It took me five years to become fully healthy again. I swore I would never make the same mistake again.”
“I finally figured out what it meant to have balls in music: allowing your instinct to guide you. Of course I’d like to do better, but I embrace my mistakes.”
With the collaboration of singers Laurence Clinton and Marie-Christine Depestre, certain tracks on the new album hearken back to the golden days of Chill’em All and the countless sweaty dancefloors for which it was responsible. Others are closer to the ethereal atmospheres of 2013’s ° 1. “An album that is strong from beginning to end is fun and reassuring, but it also means that the artist only has one colour on their palette,” says Champion. “That’s not true. Unless they really suck, no one listens just one musical genre. I wanted Best Seller to reflect that. Show my true colours.”
The musician played virtually all the instruments on the album, and this desire for authenticity means he intentionally left some errors on the final product. “I like trap,” he says. “I wanted to make trap using my guitar on ‘Boing Boing’ and ‘Yea-Eah.’ It didn’t turn out the way I wanted, but I had a lot of fun doing it, and it’s amusing. I finally figured out what it meant to have balls in music: allowing your instinct to guide you. Of course I’d like to do better, but I embrace my mistakes. I even learned to play with my faux pas – for example, on ‘And I You,’ where you can clearly hear my fingers slide on the guitar strings. Those are the kind of things you usually remove in the studio. You mask them. I decided to put them forward.”
In the end, Best Seller comes across as a kind of creative lab where enjoyment has taken precedence over intelligence, even if that means breaking some recording rules. “During the mastering, Ryan Morey told me that ‘Impatient’ was out of phase because I had used reverb on the bass. Apparently, you can’t do that. He wanted me to re-do the mix. I told him to fuck off! You’re not touching that. Except that because of that decision, we cannot include that track on the vinyl pressing because the groove would be too unstable for a turntable needle. Too bad!”
Champion et ses G-Strings
Thursday, June 30, at Club Soda
Part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival