James Chance: Still Incorrigible After All These Years

James Chance understands show business even if show business has never understood James Chance.

Photo by Dawid Laskowski

James Chance understands show business even if show business has never understood James Chance. Busting out of Wisconsin and landing in a $125-a-month pad on Avenue A in the late 70s, Chance was the best dressed white man on the Lower East Side at a time when, depending on your perspective on ripped shirts and leather jackets, there either was or wasn’t a lot of competition. His band the Contortions was featured on the No Wave document “No New York” (produced by Brian Eno, though Chance claims, “It was not produced at all! It was like a field document!”) and their first full length Buy is a classic that, like Television’s Marque Moon and Patti Smith’s Horses, doesn’t sound remotely dated. Known for both his sartorial style and his way of literally grabbing the audience and shaking them, Chance infused an entirely non-ironic (though not without sly humor) love of jazz (especially the free kind) and funk into a scene sorely lacking in all of the above. He coupled these with pure over the top rage and showmanship. If funk is as, Dâm-Funk has told Gary Suarez, “a smile with a tear,” then every night James Chance draped himself in the archetypal James Brown cape, laughed, cried, screamed, and then set himself and the cape on fire.

His constant confrontation with the audience couldn’t last, either physical harm or, worse, shtick were the only possible end results of violent shows repeated. So James Chance chilled. The music remained left of center but with more jazz and less jazz police. He has intermittently put out top-notch albums with various bands that combine noir poetry, saxophone that even avowed saxophone haters love, and a singular bohemian wildness. Writing this I was approached by multiple people who told tales of the most banal downtown nights being entirely transformed by James Chance showing up and his sax playing reducing them to sobbing.

James Chance lives in midtown in an apartment building for showbiz types, funded by the Actors Fun, with his lady and dancer of thirty years, Judy Taylor. James greeted me at the door in white short-sleeved button down, hair perfect, and Judy floated in and out of the room in full black evening gown and pearls. Throughout the interview, James rarely made eye contact with me, the couple would bicker sweetly, and Judy would occasionally interject to remind Chance of pivotal musical encounters or just to introduce me to one of the stuffed animals the couple has collected from various roadside shops in Europe. Their apartment is (and I’m not going to violate their privacy by describing it in detail) from the teacups, the coasters, the film noir posters, everything one could possibly hope it to be. It was a lovely evening and I’m deeply grateful to Mr. Chance (and Ms. Taylor) for taking the time to talk to me.

James Chance and the Contortions are performing at Trans Pecos this Sunday (9/20) during the day (along with Ex Models and Dreamcrusher) as part of Trans Pecos’ September Sunday afternoon concert series.

NOISEY: You’ve said that that “listening to Richard Hell, that’s when I knew I could sing.”
James Chance:
When I was in Catholic grade school, I was in a boy’s choir. My sister describes it as sounding like yowling cats. I never had any training as a singer. I didn’t do it when I was playing jazz, though I was a big fan of Billy Holiday. One time when I was 16, I was at the music conservatory, I was standing in the hall, singing a Billy Holiday song, I thought to myself and someone came out of a classroom and said in a nasally voice “ will you please stop that!” But when I started the Contortions I thought I would just sing some of the songs and I would have a girl singing half of the songs. Actually, before I was in Teenage Jesus with Lydia Lunch, we had a band that never got out of practice called the Scabs. It was me and Lydia and Jody Harris and Reck from Teenage Jesus. The idea was to do half my songs and half Lydia’s songs. That idea continued onto the Contortions.

Originally I had this girl; she was the girlfriend of Alan Vega. Ann something… she had this homemade synthesizer that had like two octaves. After she kind of dropped out, I had this little punkette girl, Debby, who worked at this punk clothing store on St. Mark's. They called her Debby Revenge. Had her singing for one or two rehearsals. She wasn’t really serious, so after that I decided “Enough of this.” I was just going to sing the songs and let the chips fall where they may. Because it was true, Richard Hell didn’t have anyone’s idea of what a trained voice would sound like. But all kinds of other people were doing the same thing! Nobody cared if you had any kind of training or voice…or even if you could carry a tune. As long as you could project yourself somehow.

Over the years your voice, especially with Terminal City, has smoothed out.
Oh yeah my singing has I think improved a lot, gotten more melodic. Partially. My voice has dropped in pitch, as people’s do, so I’m singing more in a baritone tone and register. It’s more in tune than it used to be! Which makes me happy.

So it’s more the aging process than a conscious decision?
Well, and just practicing. Even back in '86, I went back to jazz, but not free jazz, I started doing standards more inspired by Chet Baker and Art Pepper. A French friend of mine, named Edwige (UPDATE: RIP), started the Beat Club, one night a week in an American Legion bar on 14th Street. She was singing standards, and Robert Aaron was playing piano. The DJ played Sinatra. The crowd was 75% Euro-trash.

So this was ten years before the swing revival.
Oh yeah but when that happened it was more a West Coast thing. It never really caught on in New York, though people tried. Most of that stuff I thought was ridiculous. But I thought maybe I could take advantage of this. That’s when I started Terminal City and started writing songs, a lot based on these film noir movies, but by the time I had the songs written and recorded, the whole swing thing was completely over!

It’s interesting about the noir thing. I’m not wildly familiar with noir, but I was thinking about Samuel Fuller...

And how your take on, and this might be a reach, but your take on funk and jazz, is somewhat like his take on noir; taking the genre and making it deeply strange…
And kind of sensational. Yeah, I can see that, though he’s not my favorite director. He was certainly a genius in his own way. What they’d call a sui generis. He wasn’t part of any school, he had a very un-art attitude towards making, I’m sure he’d even bristle at calling them films, making movies. And I’m kind of like that too. Even though I was part of a very arty movement. I never looked at it that way. And as the years went on, I became more and more orientated towards being an entertainer, an all-around entertainer, the kind that isn’t really around anymore.

James Chance and Les Contortions

That always confounds me when people deny that it’s performance…
Yeah what are you doing up there then? Why don’t you just do it in your living room if that’s how you feel? If you’re going to be up there, presenting yourself to people, I believe you’ve got to put some thought into that aspect of it. Instead of just getting up there in the same clothes you wear to go to the grocery store. I think that’s a kind of pretentious attitude. It’s saying “I’m such a genius that I don’t have to think about the way I present myself or look good. I can just get up in my everyday clothes and what I’m doing is so fantastic people are just going to love it anyway!”

Even though I’m in shorts and a baseball cap.
It’s also a very lazy attitude. But that’s par for the course.

It’s funny the way people comment on videos of no wave and its’ so weird seeing people, being people, waxing nostalgic and being, about strange and dangerous times, like “oh such great memories so fun!” and it’s like…was it fun?
Oh yeah getting all sentimental about CB's and the filthy bathroom. You know, like, some of those aspects, when I think about them now, just seem squalid. But it was kind of like a… some people had an attitude like that stuff is great… like the essence of the whole thing was how squalid the CB's bathroom was... on the other hand there was an intensity to that whole scene that doesn’t exist anymore. There was no Internet, the only other entertainment was television, and that was just the regular channels. It wasn’t like you had every obscure thing at your fingertips on the computer. You had to go out and find it… or make it for yourself. And we literally lived in those clubs. We went every night. Though, I mean, how many times can you play the same songs on the jukebox? A new song on the jukebox would be a great event! It was the only place you could find people on the same wavelength as you. Even if you couldn’t stand half of them.

I feel like there’s not enough attention paid to your lyrics.
I do too!

On perhaps your most famous song, “Contort Yourself,” the lyrics can be taken as something with a real philosophy underpinning it or as a play on the Watusi or the Jerk…
Both! There’s a kind of a philosophy behind it but it’s not something I choose to elaborate on at great length… the lyrics basically mean what they say. I think they’re pretty clear. Most pop lyrics now are either incredibly banal… People write clichés strung together that could just as easily be written by a computer or they write something that’s completely the opposite, incomprehensible and deliberately so.

Well, another of your famous lines is “I don’t care what weapon you use as long as you keep me amused…”
That’s true but those kinds of lyrics don’t keep me amused. To me it doesn’t have to be high culture. Some trashy horror movie from the 60s like the Flesh Eaters can be just as much cinematic masterpiece as Fellini. I don’t differentiate between high and low. A lot of film critics would admit that it might be good but they’d never consider it on the same level but to me it’s just how much you like something.

No wave was taken so seriously but do you see a kinship between yourself and something like John Waters or the Cramps?
Sure! We were all fans of the Cramps! I was at the Cramps audition at CBGB's and Lydia was going with Lux Interior for a bit. No one in No Wave took it all that seriously. DNA, there’s a lot of humor in that. Most of the people who do get into music like that tend to take it very seriously.

You’ve talked about your mixed feelings about disco, one of my favorite things, and don’t take this wrong, as it is a remix, is the August Darnell remix of "Contort Yourself."
No that’s great! I like it fine. I think it’s great what he did!

How did that come about?
Ok when we did the Off White album Michael Zilkha, we had a contract with him for the Contortions, we were about to do the Buy album and he said, "I have another thing in mind. I’m going to give you a budget, and I want you to do a disco album." Something for $10,000, which wasn’t too bad for an idea as off-the-wall as that. But he didn’t elaborate on it more than that. He just said, “I want it to be your idea of disco,” and he left it at that. He didn’t come to the sessions; he just left it to me to figure out what I was going to do that had some relationship to disco. You couldn’t help to listen to disco then. It was omnipresent. You didn’t have to go to disco clubs, you would hear it in a cab, you would hear it in the stores… you would hear it everywhere.

So I thought I’d make a disco version of "Contort Yourself." There was an earlier version that was faster. So what happened was we went to a black disco in St. Paul and somehow convinced the DJ to play it, and people were just completely baffled, and I realized it was too fast for disco. At that time my tempo was influenced by punk rock, so everything was really fast. Anyway, Michael decided we needed a new version that was more like disco, so he called August Darnell, who was one of his artists, and he just literally slowed the track down mechanically, and he wrote a new guitar part and put that himself and put background vocals and claps. I wasn’t even there, he just did all that himself, and I just went in and did a new vocal.

The Contortions' Buy LP

Was your guitar player upset?
Well the band had already broken up. He probably wasn’t thrilled. But I still use that part. I liked it. So it wasn’t really collaboration. He added his own take without consulting me. Which was fine with me! I don’t really collaborate with people too much in terms with sitting down and writing a song.

Why is that?
I’ve never really tried it. Some people work in teams, like the old Brill Building songwriters. They would have sessions every day, and I just don’t work like that. For one thing, I don’t write a song a day or a song a week. I don’t write a song a month! I might go years without writing a song. I won’t write a song unless I have an idea that I think is really worth working on. I don’t write songs just to keep in practice.

When’s the last time you wrote a song?
Probably the last album. Incorrigible. Do you know that album?

I don’t.
: That’s terrible!

I know it’s terrible. I admit it.
It’s terrible because it was only released in Europe and didn’t have the promotion it should have, and people just don’t know about it. Typical thing that always happens to me. A French company started the album, and then they ran out of money and tried to release it anyway even though they were bankrupt. So myself and the other producer had to stop them. And we started our own company to release the record, and it kind of came out in different territories over the course of months.

So will you be playing songs off it with the Contortions?
Yeah. When I work with the original band, they’re not into playing my material written after that band broke up. So we mostly play the songs from those records. Which is fun. I like to do it, but I also like to play other stuff too. But this gig will be other New York musicians who I’ve played with since the 80s, so we’ll play this too.

How did you get involved with the Trans Pecos series?
This Japanese friend of mine who was working on some gigs in Japan introduced him to me. I did a thing in June in the galleries in Chelsea, in one of those art supermarkets. They built this maze, and I played in the maze. I do this solo act where I use prerecorded mixes without the saxes and vocals, and I play over it. I throw in other obscure soul and funk records. I had this record of just Tito Puente doing percussion, and I played sax over it and walked through the maze. There were all these people in white outfits, they looked like fugitives from Devo but Devo wore yellow. So I did a similar thing at Trans Pecos. I couldn’t believe how far out it was. Forty bucks in a cab! I thought I was in the wrong place because there was no sign, but then I saw people coming out and they said, “Yeah this is the place.” Apparently there are a lot of young kids living out there. Eventually they’re going to be in the ocean or Nassau County.

Do you feel like you go in and out of fashion?
I’m perpetually bubbling under, never breaking through, and occasionally descending into the depths. For instance, the early 90s was a terrible time for me. Everything was grunge, stuff I couldn’t relate to at all. I couldn’t believe it was in to wear plaid shirts. It was all the worst aspects of the hippy years returning. It was too soon for any revival of the early 80s. Henry Rollins tried to do that and that is what got me back working again. He started a reissue label. Nobody was interested but at least it got me working. Starting with 2000 going up till about 2008 there was a bit more interest in No Wave, and then the economy collapsed and killed off a lot of marginal stuff again.

There does seem like there’s interest again.
I think there’s interest and people who know who I am but it’s a matter of…there’s so much happening…you have to get peoples attention and I’m not really a digital guy. I got someone who put up a nice webpage for me.

Are you interested in more? Is this enough? Are you happy just playing in New York?
Well that’s not true. I mostly work in Europe. I have a French band. The whole business model I use is I use a band from whatever part of the world I’m working in. It’s just not economically possible to bring a band. I had a band from Chicago called the Watchers. I did a gig in Portland and have a band there that I’m supposed to do a West Coast tour with. Next year I’ll go to Australia, and I’ll have a band there.

So do you want to do another record?
Of course I want to put out another record! My last two records weren’t released in the USA, so they’re available! They way I write songs is if I get an idea, I write it down. Maybe a verse or the lyrics or a riff I like, I’ll write that down. If I have an opportunity to do a record, I pull that stuff out, and I complete it.

But there has to be an actual opportunity.
Yeah that’s just the way my mind works. Same with the musicians. I don’t have a band going constantly where we go and rehearse all the time. But we don’t need to. The caliber of musicians I use, you know a lot of rock bands they rehearse constantly because they have to memorize it all note by note you know because they’re not capable of improvising or they don’t have the musical flexibility to do it any other way.

This ties into the notion that art is a job; I’ll do the gig when I have the gig. This is show business.
Exactly. Otherwise I’m totally content to play standards on my piano by myself.

Follow Zachary Lipez on Twitter.