Bow To The Devilish Prince: James Chance Interviewed

Zoë Street Howe talks to James Chance about his new retrospective collection _Twist Your Soul_ and his relationships with James Brown and Lydia Lunch

Bow down, dear Quietus readers, for you are in the presence of the devilish prince of New York’s No Wave: the incandescent be-suited Puck who fused funk, punk and free jazz with a little help from what might as well have been sheer black magic. Don’t be fooled by the vulnerable furrowed brow and childlike pout. This is the man who pierced the fug of hipster ennui with the feral screams of both his voice and his saxophone, by leaning on the organ for maximum Hammer horror cacophony, and by physically shaking punters out of their carefully-honed nonchalance. No, you do not want to sit on the floor insouciantly studying your nails when James Chance is on stage.

Chance, with his group The Contortions, first unleashed their twisted agony/ecstasy and irresistible funk (including covers of James Brown’s ‘I Can’t Stand Myself’ and ‘Super Bad’) more than three decades ago. In the 1980s, Chance, as James White and the Blacks, graced us with tracks like ‘Christmas With Satan’, which funnily enough never troubled mainstream festive playlists (it’s still less offensive than East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ though), the dirtified disco strut of ‘Contort Yourself’ and the frankly chilling filthy phone-call that is ‘Stained Sheets’, which drips with sex and pain and features the crying, mumbling, orgasming vocalisations of Stella Rico (better known as Lydia Lunch), dissolving the listener into fearful confusion, an eavesdropper whose ears just heard something… bad. All from the boy who spent his early years being taught piano by nuns, by the way.

So, sitting comfortably? Thought not. That’s ok. Because James Chance, sartorially sharp and magnificent of quiff at 57, wants you on your feet anyway.

This August sees the release of a rather fabulous Chance retrospective: Twist Your Soul, two fine discs of rare live and studio recordings, and if that wasn’t enough his life-long love of film noir and jazz is indulged on The Fix Is On – another new album (released in February) which is also a bit of a must. Ok, a lot of a must, teetering, as ever, between pleasure and pain, luscious velvetiness and discord, dissonance and the odd scream…

Hello James.

James Chance: Hi.

How are you?

JC: I’m ok.

So, Twist Your Soul

JC: It was a Japanese label that had the idea, and they wanted to include a CD of live stuff. I happened to have a lot of live stuff, stuff no one had ever heard – a lot of stuff from the 90s. We only made one live record that not so many people heard either, so I just thought if someone wants to put it out, it’s fine with me!

I take it in recent years you’ve been touring with a French band, Les Contorsions? How did that come about?

JC: It was almost an accident that it got started. I had a show in Paris, it was the first time I’d played in Paris since the early 80s. This was about five years ago. There was a misunderstanding about the money, and I thought they were paying for the tickets and they were expecting me to, and there just wasn’t enough money to bring my band from New York. So, I almost cancelled it but they said I couldn’t because I was the headliner, it was like a small festival.

Finally two weeks before the show they said, ‘We’ll find you a band here in France,’ so I kind of didn’t have a whole lot of choice! I only had one rehearsal with them and they’d just learned all the songs by themselves. They turned out to be really good, I was surprised how funky they were. I was so happy with them that I just decided to keep working with them. They live in Rennes and they back me up whenever I go to Europe basically. They also did a few shows in Japan with me just a few weeks ago.

I gather the original Contortions are also back together, do you play with them as well?

JC: Yeah, once in a while. They all have their own careers now outside of music, but we get together for special shows.

And there’s a former Lounge Lizard in the current line-up?

JC: The bass-player, yeah, Eric Sanko. The rest are all the original members: Pat Place, Jody Harris and Don Christensen.

Talking of the Lounge Lizards, do you know how John Lurie is doing? (Lurie has suffered from ill health over the past few years, and has claimed to be "90 per cent" certain that it is Lyme disease).

JC: I think he’s a little better, but I don’t think he’s well enough to play music. He’s been painting lately. And he also does voiceovers – like, one time I was watching a documentary about animals, and the voice narrating sounded familiar, and then I saw on the credits it was John Lurie!

Something that always marked your music apart from the other groups in the No Wave scene was that obviously it was so influenced by black music, funk, free jazz, disco – why weren’t more people taking and twisting those influences?

JC: There was such a big separation at that time between different genres of music. There were all these scenes right on top of each other. Within two blocks of CBGBs there were like three jazz places I used to go to, but there was hardly any interchange between the two scenes, it was as if the people within them were actively hostile to each other.

I remember one time, when I was in Teenage Jesus (and the Jerks, with Lydia Lunch) I was doing a sound check for a gig we were doing, opening for the Heartbreakers, and afterwards I went to the pay-phone to call this jazz saxophone player I knew, because I wanted him to do a jazz gig with me.

While I was talking to him he could hear the Heartbreakers doing their sound check in the background, and he asked what that music was. When I told him and said that I was playing with this ‘punk rock’ band, he refused to do this jazz gig with me!

And as far as the punk rock scene … a lot of those people considered their music to be white people’s music, they really didn’t want any black influence in there. I was probably one of the main people to change all that.

A lot of your song titles sort of toy with the black/white thing, ‘Almost Black’, ‘Bleached Black’, ‘White Cannibal’…

JC: Yeah, I was trying to loosen people’s attitudes up about it, not take things so seriously.

You went under different guises: James White and the Blacks, James Chance and the Contortions, tell me about that.

JC: Well, the James White thing got started when Michael Zilkha from Ze Records asked me to do a disco record. He basically just said, ‘Here’s some money, do a disco record, whatever your concept of disco is!’ He didn’t really give me any more direction than that.

So we made the record and then we thought I should use a different name, and it obviously wasn’t the Contortions, so we had to come up with a name for it, so that’s where the name James White and the Blacks came from. Later we made it into a live revue, we took the Contortions as the rhythm section and added a horn section and singers and dancers, and we did some shows like that around New York, but unfortunately I was never able to take that on the road. Just couldn’t afford it.

But then later on, after the original Contortions broke up, I kind of started using James White and the Blacks, that was the name I just used for most of the 1980s. Then we also had the Flaming Demonics, which was an instrumental off-shoot.

I was off the scene for the early part of the 1990s, I wasn’t really performing hardly at all. When I decided to get back into it I thought I should make a choice and decide which name I was going to use, and I decided to go back to James Chance. It was the name I started out with and I just had to choose one! I just like Chance better after all.

Obviously James Brown is a huge influence on your work. Did you ever meet him?

JC: No, I never did meet him. I went to a few of his shows around 1980. I went to one that was at a night-club in Brooklyn and after the show I waited around outside his dressing room for a long time to try to talk to him, but he just wasn’t opening the door, so I finally gave up and went home!

That’s a pity, I was always intrigued as to what his impression of what you were doing might be.

JC: Yeah me too, it is a shame.

With respect to Brown, I found the Contortions’ version of ‘King Heroin’ the more affecting.

JC: I think I added something more to it. For one thing I was singing the song instead of just talking it, but also I possibly have more personal experience of it than he did.

It’s definitely more emotional and bruised; in contrast Brown’s sounds quite instructive.

JC: That’s true. I changed a few of the words too, I left out some and I added a few. I did other versions of James Brown songs, ‘Cold Sweat’, ‘Super Bad’. I wrote whole new sort of lyrics, I’d start out with his lyrics and then end up with whole new long versions with my own words. Those two are on an album I did in the later 1980s, Melt Yourself Down. It came out in Japan but it’s probably going to be re-released very soon.

On a different tack, there was always something a bit devilish about your music…

JC: I was definitely into the dark side of things, it’s just my personality and where my interests lie. I’m really into true crime books and film noir, it’s just natural to me, that’s the side of life I live on, luckily it’s more as a spectator and an artist than actually doing things like that… (laughs).

Audiences love being a bit scared or intimidated, it’s part of the thrill – your music I always thought was intensely compelling on quite a physical level, and of course there was always the threat of violence at your gigs…

JC: Not just the threat! I used to actually attack people in the audience, push them around a bit.

Did it come from genuine anger or was it just to see how far, literally, you could push an audience?

JC: The way it got started was that the original audience for the Contortions was the really artsy SoHo types, a lot of people in the scene in New York then had a very cool attitude, they cultivated this attitude of sort of being above it all, and you couldn’t get them to react! People didn’t dance. Clubs like CBGBs and Max’s (Max’s Kansas City) didn’t even have dance-floors.

I just wanted to get a reaction, and actually the first time I did that, the audience were all sitting on the floor. And that really pissed me off. I just started pulling them up off the floor onto their feet and even that didn’t seem to get much of a reaction so I just started slapping some of them.

It must be insulting if you’re pouring your heart into something and the audience is just self-consciously switched off. So what happened then? They must have been pretty outraged.

JC: Some were outraged, a lot of them just kind of took it though! Once in a while someone would fight back.

I guess it worked then.

JC: Yeah, and it got me a lot of publicity too! After a while the whole thing kind of fed on itself though, and people started coming just for that, expecting it, and it sort of turned into, like, another schtick, so I stopped doing it and started staying mostly on the stage.

Anya Phillips (who passed away in 1981 from cancer) was clearly a powerful influence in your life and on your image. In a different way you also had what I imagine must have been an intense creative partnership with Lydia Lunch. How did those two female influences differ?

JC: Well, for one thing they really didn’t like each other very much! Even though actually, before Anya was managing me, she did make a short-lived attempt to manage Lydia, but that didn’t work out very well, (laughs). I don’t think any of the things that Anya found for Lydia to do, she never did any of them, and just found her own gigs anyway, it was kind of a fiasco! Even before I really knew Anya, when I was hanging out with Lydia, Anya was someone who really stood out on the scene, she was very visible, everyone knew who she was, and Lydia would say things like, ‘Let’s do something to Anya!’ All these plots against Anya… she never actually did anything about them but there was definite animosity there!

I suppose when you have two very powerful women, it’s hard for either not to want to be the one in control.

JC: Yeah, they both very much wanted to be in control of me, so when you get the two of them together you get some sparks flying.

Must have been an interesting time…

JC: Oh yeah! Haha!

Going back to the music, a few years ago you said you didn’t listen to any music post-75. Is that still true for you?

JC: Pretty much, yeah. Right now I’m really into this rare funk stuff. There are these English DJs who find incredibly obscure funk 45s from the mid 60s and early 70s and put together these compilations of tracks from obscure funk bands who only made one or two singles, and it’s just incredible stuff, it seems endless, they just keep finding more and more of it. It’s really just as good if not better than the well known stuff.

It’s not that I don’t want to hear new music but the new music I listen to is old music that no one’s ever heard! In every city that had a black ghetto you had all these bands of kids imitating James Brown… one of these records I discovered was by a band that I used to go and hear when I was about 14! They were called The New Breed.

It must have been like finding lost treasure.

JC: It was, and it was a great record too, better than a lot of the other stuff. There’s a couple of record stores that specialise in stuff like that, but it’s hard because I’m not into buying stuff on the internet, you know? And there’s not many actual record stores left, they’re all closing.

I still hope the pendulum swings back and there’ll be a rush of interest in just owning something physical again…

JC: Well, that’s true, in the last few years a lot of people have been getting a lot more into vinyl than they were before, no one wants CDs any more, they want vinyl. It’s a much nicer artefact.

A lot of people won’t even know what it is to hold a CD though! They get everything on the internet. I just don’t relate to that. I have email but I just don’t relate to all this internet stuff. I’m very old school that way. I mean I might be a relic but I have got something that most hardly anybody else has. In fact, nobody else does.

I remember hearing that you love singers such as Jimmy Scott, did you grow up listening to jazz?

JC: No, I started taking piano lessons when I was about seven with these nuns because I went to a Catholic school, but they were just playing stuff out of children’s lesson books.

When I was about 12 I started taking lessons with an older guy in a music store and he had me playing old standards, and he taught me a little bit of stride piano. But then, and it was about 1965, that was when I started listening to Top 40 radio. I became completely captivated! For about a year all I did was walk around with a little transistor radio glued to my ear, from the time I got up, and then I would take it to bed and listen to it until I fell asleep (laughs). My parents kind of thought I’d gone nuts.

The music that you’d hear on those stations, all the Motown, all the James Brown… the stuff I was really into though was all the white acts that were influenced by black music, like The Animals, The Yardbirds, Them, The Young Rascals, I was totally into all of that kind of stuff, more than I was the actual black artists.

When I was about 16, that was when I first got into jazz. There used to be this college station, they had a couple of shows where they would play Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention, I’d listen to that, but then they’d also play John Coltrane.

There was a magazine called Jazz and Pop, I’d buy it for the articles about rock musicians, but then I started reading these articles about jazz and I just got really intrigued. The first jazz record I bought was A Love Supreme. Then, as I did with the Top 40 when I was twelve, I just got totally captivated with these jazz guys, it was like a whole other level of music that I wasn’t aware of. It was so much deeper than the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane.

There was maybe even a more anarchic element about jazz then too that a lot of people miss now, it was political.

JC: Yeah, it was political and it also comes from the blues, I got into the really heavy stuff from the beginning, Coltrane, people like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, I wasn’t into the lightweight stuff.

Do you still watch a lot of film noir? What is your favourite?

JC: There’s so many. Asphalt Jungle, Touch Of Evil… and I love this director Anthony Mann, Raw Deal, and there’s the whole English film noir that not too many people know about.. you know the actor Stanley Baker? He’s a real favourite of mine, he did this movie called The Criminal, and there’s another one called They Made Me A Fugitive with Trevor Howard. It’s the visual style, that’s why I’m mainly into it, it’s so powerful.

I’ve also got another new record called The Fix Is In, it just came out on this French label called Maquis. The name of the band is Terminal City, it’s a much more jazz-influenced thing. It’s only been out about two months. I recorded it a long time ago actually, it came out in Japan a few years ago.

That’s got a real strong film noir influence, in fact a lot of the songs are actually named after movies or somehow inspired by movies. (Song titles include ‘Blonde Ice’, ‘The Set Up’, ‘The Street With No Name’.)

You played at The Victoria in East London recently, and Matt Groening’s ATP – when can we next expect to see you over here?

JC: Well, there’s a No Wave reunion sort of thing, it’s with me and Pat Place and Lydia Lunch and this woman Vivienne Dick who is putting it together. It’s not for sure yet, but they were talking about doing it in the middle of September.

Do you still see Lydia Lunch?

JC: No, she hasn’t lived in New York for a very long time, and she’s very peripatetic, she’s always moving somewhere different. The last place as far as I know she lived was Barcelona.

Finally, what would the James Chance I’m speaking to now say to the James Chance of 30 years ago?

JC: Haha! I would say ‘Take it easier! Don’t start so many fights and take a few less substances.’

Good advice for most of us, I’d say.

JC: Just less, though! I don’t mean don’t take any…

Twist Your Soul – The Definitive Collection is released on History Records, August 2nd 2010.

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