Soulful and clever rock ‘n’ roller Paul Chesne plays two very different gigs as he plots his next act
By Bliss Bowen
“We are providing good music as a service,” Paul Chesne says groggily. “It is a constantly shifting crowd; oftentimes there are frat kids and models and all different types of people, all kinds. I never know what I’m walking into.”
It’s noon, and Chesne sounds a little drunk, or hungover, or both. A few hours earlier the amiable musician had poured himself a glass of wine and cooked dinner after awakening from a nap, only to realize night had passed and it was daylight out. “#bachelorlife,” he tweeted.
Chesne has a quick wit, a showman’s instincts and a hard-earned reputation for putting on fun, rocking shows. He’s also one of those guys who can get taken for granted because it seems like he’s always been around.
Born in Inglewood, raised in Brentwood, he settled in Venice in 2002, a couple of years before making his first album, 2005’s “Wet Dog Man.” The creative community’s boho vibe suits his soulful rock ‘n’ roller persona.
The wickedly insightful humor sharpening songs like “Offshore Bank Accounts,” “Taking Pills with George Jones” and “I Would Prefer to Focus on Your Flaws” enamors audiences while keeping them just far enough away that he can size them up from behind the microphone. The bar band veteran has honed that talent for reading a room over more than a decade playing local watering holes like the Basement, the Townhouse, the Cinema Bar and O’Brien’s, as well as more unconventional spaces such as Big Red Sun on Rose Avenue and the late, great Stronghold.
“One of my favorite memories [of the Stronghold] is of waking up onstage there at like 7 in the morning,” he recalls with a laugh. “There were like 75 people listening to me playing, and I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa.’”
As loyal fans can attest, that’s not an atypical episode in Chesne’s career. Working by day at Getty Images, where he works with the archival and curation of music photography, Chesne’s nights are generally occupied with music and writing.
On Friday he returns to the Cinema Bar with bassist Jason Chesney, Dwight Yoakam drummer Mitch Marine, and guitarist Dutch Suoninen; next Wednesday he plays acoustic (either solo or with Suoninen) at the Aloft Hotel bar’s happy hour.
“Sometimes we walk into a place and we’re just like wallpaper,” he acknowledges with a wry chuckle. The more they play (and Chesne estimates they’ve played about 75 shows this year), the better they get and the more they’re wound into the fiber of the local community; yet the more they play, the easier it is for them to be overlooked by club-hoppers hunting for something new.
Chesne takes it in stride and keeps making music. “I’ve got a lot of fight in me,” he acknowledges. “I don’t know what it is. Drive.”
Onstage, he and his gig-hardened bandmates “roll with the punches,” gauging the tricky balance between dancers demanding songs with a beat and diners who prefer the comfort of soul and country covers.
Chesne’s five albums (including last year’s “Heartache & Sin,” produced by Sturgill Simpson bassist Dave Roe) provide the bedrock of material for his shows, although he’s just as likely to cover James Brown, Ray Charles, Eminem, 50 Cent or the Stones. He learned the craft of playing to the room over many nights at the Cinema Bar studying former regulars Mike Stinson, Randy Weeks, Ramsay Midwood and Tony Gilkyson as they performed to packed houses.
“Those guys taught me how to play for four hours and do what I do,” he recalls. “Me and Dutch would go there, and some nights it was so crowded you couldn’t get in. Lucinda Williams would show up, [Sheryl Crow’s pedal steel player] Josh Grange would be up there [on bass or guitar], [drummer] Don Heffington. Stinson would be like, ‘Let me introduce you to members of the audience.’
“They gave me inspiration because we’ve played shows where there were like six people. I always say, as long as there’s one person there who’s not in the band, then it’s not rehearsal.”
Not unlike Stinson, Chesne has since earned the respect of peers for his
performance stamina and songwriting chops. This fall he teamed with fellow Venice resident Matt Ellis for “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To,” an irreverent single he hopes will be the seed of an EP and the beginning of more songwriting collaborations. His cabinets, he says, are stuffed with lyrics: “I have hundreds of songs that are in serious states of decay. I write a lot.”
He mentions a new, Trump-inspired song written the night before, which will hopefully appear in one of his sets at the Cinema or Aloft. “It’s called ‘Kiss the Ring.’ How everybody loses their dignity, even the tech giant titans and Romney. Going up the elevator shaft, kiss the ring [of the] impetuous leader.”
Like many independent artists, he’s weighing the value of albums vs. singles. He’s confident his band could record an album in two days, especially since they’re already familiar with his tunes. But he would be “totally fine” with recording and releasing singles as soon as he writes them.
“Doing 10 of them at a time is not really how my brain works,” he says. “As an artist, I like having something to sell at shows, but no one has a CD player anymore. …
“I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do. That’s kinda why I wanted to take December easy: to think about the next act in this diabolical scheme I’m working on.”
The Paul Chesne Band rocks the Cinema Bar (3967 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; 310-390-1328) at 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23. Admission is free, but donations into the tip jar are encouraged and go directly to the artists. Chesne also plays acoustic during happy hour at the Aloft Hotel bar (475 N. Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo; 424-290-5555) at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 28. Visit paulchesne.com for more info.