With his harsh and poetic lyrics, Vic Chesnutt often gets pegged as a "Southern gothic" artist. Yet three of the Athens., Ga., songwriter's most recent albums successfully challenged him with unlikely collaborators from outside the Southern sphere. Chesnutt's last tour included fellow Athens act Elf Power—best known for brightly rocking psychedelia—and this time around he's touring with Fugazi's Guy Picciotto and members of Montreal post-rock band A Silver Mt. Zion, who joined him on 2007's North Star Deserter and the new At The Cut, often bringing out a bleak vibe. Before Chesnutt hits The Black Cat Friday, Oct. 30, The A.V. Club asked him what it's like switching between such different collaborators within a few short years.
The A.V. Club: At The Cut is the second album you've made with these collaborators. How was it different this time around?
Vic Chesnutt: Well, now we know each other, and we've played on tour a lot. By actually playing together for a while, we learned what we could do together. We learned exactly what each person could do to make it huge and beautiful—their place in the orchestra. Going on tour is like going to war, and you come back a band of brothers and you learn your place in the pack, and you're a more efficient killing machine.
AVC: That's kind of an appropriate metaphor, because some of the collaborative songs, especially "Coward," have a bit of a martial feel.
VC: Right. That song was inspired by The Radetzky March, that book by Joseph Roth. It's a very martial thing.
AVC: You played "Coward" on tour before. Did you get a chance to do a lot of the other new songs live?
VC: No, that's the only one. All of the others were new. This song, we played it together and learned it as part of the Empires Of Tin project. The DVD just came out on Constellation Records. It was a Jem Cohen project for the Vienna Film Festival, based on The Radetzky March.
AVC: You recorded At The Cut in December 2008, and the next month you were out on tour with Elf Power. Was that a weird transition to make?
VC: Well, not really. It's a very, very different dynamic. [Elf Power and I are] all kind of Southern people, and [the Silver Mt. Zion members are] all kind of these urban Canadians. And Guy is so urban—I mean, my God, he grew up in D.C. and he's a very international dude. It's kind of different in that way. We're all kind of slacker, stoner types, the Elf Power guys and me, and these guys are all more—definitely not stoners, that's for sure.
AVC: Well, the album with Elf Power did have some long, dirge-type songs. Were you at all surprised to be able to pull that off with them?
VC: The first songs that I wanted to do with Elf Power, when we had the idea of recording together and playing together, were kind of more the poppy songs. "Bilocating Dog," and these kind of songs. There were a couple of songs that we recorded but didn't even put on the album, because we felt that they were a little passé by the time we got done with the album.
AVC: Do you think there's a strong border between what you can do in one band setting and what you can do in another band setting?
VC: Oh, yeah. You have to tailor it. You can't get blood from a stone. It's very personality-dependent.
AVC: A song like "Bilocating Dog" probably wouldn't translate to the Silver Mt. Zion Setting.
VC: Oh, yeah, I wouldn't even try. I was brought to Silver Mt. Zion because of Jem Cohen, and he liked certain kids of songs of mine. He doesn't like the more frivolous songs. He hated my two albums before North Star Deserter. He was making his perfect Vic Chesnutt album, weeding out certain of my songs and picking these kinds. I love those songs, too, I just write different kinds of songs. Not all my songs are about introspection! A lot of my songs are kind of these weird story-songs or whatever. So I played those songs with Elf Power, and I didn't get too personal at all on Dark Developments.