Jose Gonzales

Last week I spoke on the phone with José Gonzaléz in hopes of getting to know the man behind the resplendent staccato grooves, rhythms and ponderings on civilization of his first self-produced album in seven years, Vestiges & Claws. I thought of no better spot than Golden Gate Park’s singular Skatin’ Place, where I often form some of my own ideas about our peculiar society. Though his tour-induced infirmities caused him to cancel other interviews that day, he wanted our readers to get the inside scoop before this Sunday’s show at the Treasure Island Music Festival. There are some amazing reviews for Vestiges & Claws, one of which you can read here, but I wanted to get to a personal level. We talked everything from childhood to his personal worldview.

The Bay Bridged: From what I read from Wikipedia, the reliable source that it is, your parents were psychologists, a military dictatorship seized power in Argentina, they fled to Sweden and then you were born. What was your upbringing like? How has it influenced your sound? Your lyrics?

José Gonzaléz: Well my parents were at the University of San Luis and my father was studying psychology and my mother was studying biochemistry. I grew up one of three kids, I’m the middle one. I grew up in Gothemburg at first in the suburb until the age of seven with many other Latinos and then we moved into the city. At the time, I was exposed to some music but not much. The music I was playing at home was a mix of Latin American music from Argentina or Brazil or Cuba, but then also the Beatles and classical music. I think that influenced me in my teenage years. I started playing guitar to play in the style of Steven Rodriguez? or John Ribalto? but also Paul Simon and some of the singer songwriters.

TBB: Were some of the big messages in your songs born out of how your parents raised you?

José: To some extent, but I think I had an easy upbringing. Both of my parents were very encouraging in whatever I did both inside and outside of school. So when I started playing guitar, they really encouraged me to do that. As with my messages, my parents, and especially my father was in a political group when he was at the university and is still pretty interested in politics. Both of them came from left-winged politics and think a lot about international and global issues and I think that’s affected me. I’ve had many years of playing music without thinking about politics and mainly just focusing on harmonies and rhythms. With my second album

[In Our Nature] and especially with this third one [Vestiges and Claws] I’ve been a bit more aware of what types of messages I want to have and have been a bit more clear.

TBB: You’re definitely very clear. In the music video for “Leaf Off/The Cave” off of your new album Vestiges & Claws you are a guest performer, almost replacing what churches have as worship leaders, at a “godless congregation that celebrates being alive.” Is this a real gathering that you attend? Would you say you fall under the same beliefs?

José: It’s called a Sunday Assembly and it was started by Sanderson Jones in London. I myself am an atheist/agnostic and don’t follow any religion. I haven’t attended any of their assemblies but I was interested in them. It sounded like it could be a fun idea for a video, and unfortunately we couldn’t do the video in London, but we did bring Anderson Jones to Gothenburg. So it’s a fake assembly in the video, but it was done in the same style as they usually do it. In their version, though, it’s more like a get together were people sing like collective karaoke and talk about interesting topics.

TBB: So somewhat modeled after how a church gathering would be like, just without the belief in God?

José: Exactly. They’re very open with that and are… just trying to copy the good stuff from church gatherings.

TBB: So I want to bring it back a little, I read about how you were pretty into Bob Marley and Michael Jackson as a kid. Both of those artists similarly write music with a message. Have they played a role in shaping your sound?

José: They’re among many artists that have inspired me. For example, Bob Marley — there are some amazing recordings where you see them in the studio playing and everyone is playing very freely and that was a big inspiration. And with messages I feel like with Michael the Earth song was a big message. They might not be on top of the list with big message people, but I have been inspired by them. I’ve also been inspired by people like John Lennon and some others. It’s very interesting. I’ve thought about it many times how big messages can kinda be kinda weird when one moment, in the case of Bob Marley, singing about Jah and then other times “One Love.” It’s fun but I feel like, with my music, I feel you need to disregard. In many ways, it’s only music and words. Whenever I’m painting with a big pencil, people don’t need to take it too seriously.

TBB: Well that’s very honest and yeah, at the end of the day, a lot of times we are kind of just searching and come up with thoughts. Sometimes they fade away and sometimes they stick.

José: Yeah yeah, and I usually like to downplay my role as an…idea former. And yeah, I like twitter in a sense because I like retweeting people who know more than I do. But if I do a song that actually helps people to think more about global issues like with my song “Every Age” for example, then it’s good.  But yeah, I like to downplay my role a bit in interviews.

TBB: Well I hear you being very humble. But you are a thinker and have a lot of philosophical ideas. From lines like “what’s the point with a love makes you hate and kill for?” in In Our Nature to “dream of a better land” and “build a place where we can all belong” in “Every Age” it seems like through and through you do have a message for the searching world.  It seems like you also pose some big questions. What do you most want to get across to people listening?

José: That’s a hard one. I can name drop humanism. I can name drop secular altruism. What else? Um, global ethics. I think these are some key words that inspire most of my thinking. There’s a huge amount of thinkers, both early and current ones, that are writing amazing stuff on these issues. Maybe another one is tribalism. I just read a book by Joshua Green about how we work as humans as collectives. I’d probably say more with those words than trying to elaborate on any of them.

TBB: As a musician myself and just having released my first EP, already I feel that the times have changed from when I didn’t feel any pressure and was just freely writing. But then you have to play shows and keep writing. So, how do you stay inspired when you have this level of influence and you have people like me demanding your time and you get sick and you’re on tour and…well you catch my drift.

José: Ha, well, yeah I get inspired by different things. I’m really bad at writing on tour and so I’ve just stopped trying and I leave that for when I’m at home. When I’m home, I’m taking in all the inspiration I get from watching other bands and hanging out with musicians and so that’s when I get the amount of time I need to write. I try to avoid the pressure on myself to write. I do get inspired on tour though. It’s easier than ever to listen to music on the bus and everyone’s playing their favorite songs or at festivals when we get to go out and watch 3 or 4 bands. When I do write on tours, it’s mostly with a laptop and headphones and not so much sitting down with a guitar. So that’s the way really that I keep my music going.

TBB: San Francisco was one of the first to receive and embrace you when we featured you in a SONY bouncing ball commercial way back in the day. How are you feeling about coming to the city to play the Treasure Island Music Festival?

José: I’m really looking forward to it. I was there many years ago and I remember it being a great festival and San Francisco in general is one of my favorite cities. I think it’s going to be great.

And we cannot wait to be serenaded this Sunday at the Treasure Island Music Festival, José.