Eddie Chacon :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Soul singer Eddie Chacon wasn’t trying to make to a “comeback record” with Pleasure, Joy and Happiness, his first album in decades. Though the Castro Valley-raised songwriter and singer has been party to hits before, Chacon and producer John Carroll Kirby (Solange, Frank Ocean, Harry Styles) weren’t chasing after pop success. Instead, they worked assiduously to make sure the new record didn’t sound like it involved trying for anything at all. No flashy guest spots, no bombast, no ego.

Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, the 56-year old Chacon explains that sometimes on his morning walks, he achieves a kind of cosmic understanding about his place in the universe. The idea was to get something like that into the record.

“No entitlement,” he says, his speaking voice as pleasant as the one you hear softly crooning on the record. “The universe owes me nothing. I love the idea of the ‘nothing’ broken up into two words: ‘no thing.'” “No thing” was a the guiding principle. The work had to feel natural and not easily classifiable.

Scrolling through the playlist Chacon built with Kirby while working the record (presented here for your streaming enjoyment) you can pick out some reference points for the oozing synths, plush bass, and percolating rhythm machines you hear on Pleasure, Joy and Happiness via selections by Earth Wind & Fire, Alton Ellis, Sly and the Family Stone, and Marvin Gaye. But it’s the inclusion of Larraji‘s “Laws of Manifestation” that offers the at the record’s metaphysical aim.

“Personally, I was feeling very pummeled and overwhelmed by the 24-hour news cycle and the intensity of social media, I think like a lot of people were, even before COVID-19 hit,” Chacon says. “I’ve often felt that throughout my career I’ve made the records I wanted to hear. I make records that kind of fulfill a need in myself. I thought it would be wonderful to make record that was meditative, that had a rejuvenating feeling about it. Something that provided a break from the chaos.”

Of course, the playlist offers only a snap shot of Chacon’s long life in music, photography, and creative direction. He joined Aquarium Drunkard to explore his deep musical past and discuss arriving where he is now, at a sonic space of refuge and otherworldly comfort. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: You had a huge hit with the late Charles Pettigrew back in 1992. But since then you’ve spent a fair time working on other creative endeavors. How did you find your way back into the studio for this album?

Eddie Chacon: After so many years off, I missed being in music. I didn’t really know for sure that I wanted to get back to music, in the capacity of being a singer or a producer, but Ethan Silverman from Terrible Records said “I have an idea for you. No guarantees, [but I know this] guy, John Carroll Kirby, who just came off the last two Solange records.” He thought we’d hit it off.

AD: What did you think of that suggestion?

Eddie Chacon: I thought that was a fantastic idea. I love the meditative vibes of John’s music. It was very much was in sync with what I was feeling. I had some fantasies and ideas about what I thought a great record would be, if I were ever to make one at my current age of 56. But you know, I also had reservations. I wasn’t sure this guy coming off a very hot, contemporary record would be interested in working with a guy from the ‘90s who hasn’t done anything significant in decades. [Laughs]

AD: You’ve got these R&B roots, but this record doesn’t sound like a “retro soul” record; it’s kind of its own thing entirely, not afraid of the experimental or the subdued. You’ve spent many years as a photographer and creative director. You’ve got a very keen sense of aesthetics. How were you thinking about the “feel” of this record as you made it?

Eddie Chacon: I wanted it to be a perfect representation of who I am today. So I was very adamant that it was not clever and that it had a nothingness to it. I didn’t want it to be gimmicky.

AD: There are all of these beautiful moments where you throw a little vocal interjection into the mix, a wordless “woo” or you hit on a syllable a certain way. Was a lot of that just you really focusing on being in the moment? Was there a lot of room for improvisation?

Eddie Chacon: I didn’t think about it. I would go to John’s studio and it was very relaxed. It was set up very loosely in the living room of one of his childhood best friends. I would just sit there slumped down low in this very comfortable chair while he toiled away making these beautiful landscapes. I would scribble some things down on a notepad while he was doing that, and then he just would spin his chair around and hand me the microphone and say, “Do you want to sing?” No headphones—the speakers would be on right in front of me. I would just do this stream of consciousness thing over what he had done. I was very interested in trusting in wherever I had arrived at over the last 10 or 15 years.

AD: You grew up in Castro Valley playing rock music. What were some of the records that made you want to play initially?

Eddie Chacon: Well it’s a real mix, because I had two brothers. I was the youngest. The oldest brother was obsessed with heavy metal music—Robin Trower, Pat Travers, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. And then my middle brother was obsessed with Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Chaka Khan, when she was still in Rufus. There was a local band called Cold Blood that had a lead singer named Lydia Pense. We were all obsessed with Lydia Pense and Cold Blood.

My middle brother is gay, and he was was also really into Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, and Diana Ross. He grew up very much in that Harvey Milk period in San Francisco in the ‘70s and even marched in those Harvey Milk marches. At one point, my brothers were ushers at the Paramount Theater so I would go to the sound checks. I watched the Tubes sound check. I remember watching Roberta Flack soundcheck. She called me over and we sat on the stairs and she had small talk with me. She was really sweet. We’d go see Boz Skaggs play at the pavilion every New Year for years. Music was like church in my household.

AD: Eventually ended up in a band with Mike Bordin and Cliff Burton who went on to be founding members of Faith No More and Metallica. What did your band with those guys sound like?

Eddie Chacon: We were just little kids. I was 12 years old and I think they were maybe 14. Mike lived about five houses up the street from me. We were really good friends as kids, we used to hang out after school together. Cliff was a friend’s friend. We just decided to start our first garage band together. We would rehearse at my dad’s trucking company office because we could play as loud as we wanted to. It was in an industrial park. They were obsessed with Black Sabbath and Ozzy, which is amazing, because Mike wound up playing with Ozzy. That must have been a dream come true for him.

AD: You were only 20 when were signed to CBS Records as a songwriter, which you worked at for a few years before meeting Charles Pettigrew in New York City. How did you hook up?

Eddie Chacon: I met him on the train. It was kind of like when you meet a girl and you fall for each other and then later on, you realize that you ran in the same circles and knew a lot of the same people. We met as musicians talking over music on the train and had a lot in common only to find out that we were both signed to Josh Deutsch, the A&R person at Capitol Records in development deals. When you’re working with an A&R person, you don’t know who else they’re working with. They’re working with a ton of people.

AD: Was it your idea to form a duo or your A&R’s?

Eddie Chacon: I was really torn about it. Charles and I had created something magical together, quite by accident but we immediately recognized it as being special, our voices singing together and intertwining. But I thought that I was going to make a solo record on Capitol Records, and I knew that once I introduced the idea of a duo, there would be no turning back. I knew that Josh would get so excited about it and that would be it for my solo record. But I did introduce the idea to him and just as I suspected, it was all about Charles & Eddie from that point forward. [Laughs] And that’s okay. We ended up making a beautiful record together.

AD: How did having a hit change your life?

Eddie Chacon: It was a euphoric feeling. For me it was the sweetest feeling after going through the uncertain journey of attempting to make music for a living.

AD: When you have a hit, the big question in the industry is “What’s next?” Did you feel OK about that pressure?

Eddie Chacon: Charles and I were very seasoned by the time that we found success with Charles & Eddie. We felt like we were getting our chance. I think we were more comfortable than we had ever been. We felt like, “Alright! Now we are just getting started. Doors are flying open and people are giving us an opportunity to do what we had always wanted to do.”

We were writing songs and getting a lot of songs in really big movies. Super Mario Brothers; Tarantino’s script that he had written, True Romance; Addams Family Values. We were just getting good news day after day and on top of that, flying all around the world nonstop for five years straight. It was such an exciting time. I don’t really remember feeling a sense of pressure. I think at that time I was still young. I had a lot to prove. I was driven very much by my ego and desire to prove something, that I can make something of myself, you know?

AD: When Charles and Eddie ended, were you two on good terms?

Eddie Chacon: Absolutely. It was a series of unfortunate events. Charles’ sister passed away, and then shortly after that, his father passed away. It was just tragic. Josh Deutsch, who had signed Charles & Eddie and produced both records and even co-wrote some of the songs with me—someone basically made him an offer he could not refuse, based partly on the success of Charles & Eddie, so he left Capitol Records and there we were without our champion. So suddenly, we were strangers in our own home. They wanted to take things in more of a rock direction. There was no anger [at the label]. There was no entitlement. We were just not a good fit for each other, and they let us out of our contract. It was pretty amicable.

AD: As far as things in the music industry go, that’s a very rare situation. You ended up in Scandinavia, working with the Danish producer Poul Bruun. What was going through your head during those years?  

Eddie Chacon: I would have to be honest and say that I was lost. I was lost musically. I had all that success, and suddenly it was over. I had the good fortune of this beautiful distraction and that this guy wanted to work with me nonstop, so over the next seven-ten years, I was just flying around the world making these records that were being very successful in the Scandinavian region. I had started out as a songwriter, so you might say I’d come full circle after Charles & Eddie. When [Bruun] retired, I basically should have retired too. Everything dried up. Totally. I kind of went into despair at that point, not really knowing what I was gonna do. A very dear friend of mine sent me a very nice camera and said, “I think you’d be good at this and that was how I wound up in photography.” I just went headfirst into it. 

AD: Do you find some of the skills required to be a great photographer carry over into music?

Eddie Chacon: Your skills are applicable across the board, the things that you learn in life in general. I definitely have that confidence. I think that once you’ve been validated in one area, you do go into other things with a sense of confidence. Even if you are starting from the beginning, you still feel certain that you have something to bring to the table.

AD: The sounds on this new record are so dialed in. Do you think the next one will come quicker?

Eddie Chacon: We’ve started, yeah, John and I. When everybody was in shock about the initial quarantine, I didn’t know what to do with myself so I just went down in my studio daily and the way I dealt with it was I wrote a batch of about 14 songs. We’re starting to sort through that stuff and have listening sessions. We’ve started with the basics of batch one. The first chapter of starting to write a new book, you might say.

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