When it comes to pioneers in music, James Chance should be mentioned in any conversation on the subject. A lifelong jazz fan and student of piano and saxophone, James with his band the Contortions were key players in the No Wave scene in New York in the late 70s/early 80s. Combining his live of jazz with rock and playing in front of a pun audience, James Chance is certainly one of the most groundbreaking and original musicians to come from that era. On the eve of his first ever tour Down Under, I spoke with James from his New York pad.
Munster: How’s the preparation for the Australian shows coming?
James: Well I’m using an Australian band, there’s not that much for me to do till I get there. I sent the band a setlist the other day for 15 to 16 songs. They’re going to work themselves out and we/ll have one rehearsal before the first show. That’s the way I usually work now. it’s not economically feasible to travel with a band from New York, I just wouldn/t make any money. The last time I did a real tour as opposed to just a few shows I ended up only making money from the CD sales. Then the agent tells me “I need to make commission so you need to give me some of your CD money” (laughs). Meanwhile she’s got her road manager making more than any of the musicians, she wanted me to rent her equipment which I refused to do I brought my own, these people had it all figured out so everyone would make money but me (laughs).
Munster: Is it just going to be Contortions songs?
James: No there’s going to be guitar, bass, drums, two guitarists, but they double on other things like piano and sax, so should be a good bit of variety. And on top of vocals and sax I do a lot of keyboard. I got a keyboard which has a Hammond, like an electric keyboard but its got stops like a Hammound, that’s what I usually use, I do a lot of solos as well as the sax, as piano was my first instrument, long before I picked up the sax.
Munster: What music did you grow up listening to?
James: Well I started taking piano when I was seven, from this nun as I went to Catholic school, but I really had no awareness of music at all, and the music they were teaching me I had no interest in either. One of the songs I did have an interest in was a song called this fast song that was based on a wild dance the Karen Keller, it was as song where it looked like they were infected by some kind of insect, and they did this wild dance. The other was, the theme songs to the old Alfred Hitchcock TV show, and its called a Funeral march for a Marionette. I loved playing that. Then in 1964, when I was eleven and the Beatles came out of nowhere. I wasn’t into the Beatles, but all these girls were really into them, buying all these ridiculous things like lunchboxes, but my sister brought a Beatles 45 I feel fine, which starts with just feedback for a few seconds, it’s a pretty normal early Beatles songs as its starts with feedback which is pretty cool, but I still wasn’t into it. What I was into was reading all these books on World War 2. I read all the kids books, and I was the only kid allowed into the adult section of the library. I was reading all these books on World War One, World War 2 and the Civil War and I started making these plastic models of battle ships with this glue which is the stuff people get high on (laughs). It took a lot of concentration but by the time I was done I was in this crazed mood and I realized it was the glue. Anyway, ONE time after I finished this model I was in a weird state of mind, and I thought im going find out what this Beatles and Rock n Roll things is. There was a top 40 station a mile from our house, so the sound was incredible loud and pure. I think the first song was Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas. This was 1965 so the ultimate time for rock and soul music, it was like an electric jolt, put me in another detention. And I went out and got a little transistor radio and I spent that whole summer with that radio glued to my head, from the minute I woke up, till when I was in bed. I was totally obsessed with everything rock n roll and top 40. The stations would put out the local top 40 and then I’d run to the record shop and buy a few 45s. It was thinks like Satisfaction, Heartfelt of Soul by the Yardbirds, Wooly Bully, just the most incredible stuff. My parents couldn’t figure out how I went from being into all this military stuff, then obsessed with music. My mother went to all my 45s, and she found this song, it was the B side to Help my Rhonda by the Beach Boys, it was called Kiss me Baby, and she got all upset about that song, like it was going to corrupt me, and the funny thing is it’s a really pretty ballad. So anyway from then on I was into rock n roll, but I was never in any of those kid garage bands, cause I was a total loner, even thought I was good on the piano. I would buy these books from all these musicans and the top 40 and play the sheet music, but I never tried to be in a band. Then my parents deiced these lessons with the nuns was going nowhere so they found me another teacher at a local music store in the basement, these little cubicles with upright piano, dim light and paint peeling off the wall. This teacher was in his 50s but he seemed ancient to me and he was a jazz guy. But not a modern jazz guy, he was teaching you how to play stride but I hadn’t heard any real jazz so I didn’t know how to do improvisation. He looked at my book of top 40 stuff and said “don/t play that its garbage”, so he would say “play this, because its better”. Even though I had no context, or how to relate it to rock n roll from where those songs came from I led playing those songs, I even learned an Oscar Peterson solo, which I’m sure I could do now. When the hippy era came I was into Jefferson Airplane, but more into the Doors and Hendrix, and then Blood Sweet and Tears, the Electric Flag they were like hippy bands with soul section. They were the first bands I saw that had horn solos. There was a magazine called Jazz and Pop, which is exactly how it sounds. It Had article or Donavan, but also on Sunny Murray and Jackie Mclean and Cecil Taylor. It sounded utterly fascinating, it talked about how this guy Sunny Murray played drums with knitting needles and got it to sound like breaking of glass, I thought shit I gotta hear this. The first jazz record I heard was Love Supreme and it was the same as my experience with the top 40 in 1965. A while new dimension in music I never heard. These guys that were total genesis but it wasn’t like boring stuff classical music. So I started trying to play that on the piano and started buying books on those songs. But I still had no band, but I knew musicians at school but they were totally baffled by what I was into, they were all Crosby Stills and Nash types.
Munster: So when you started playing music yourself was it rock, jazz or punk you wanted to play?
James: I was trying to be a jazz playe.r could play all these songs, like the Doors I could do the arrangements off the sheet which incorporated the solo, but I had no experience playing that with a bands. SO then I played Monk and Charlie Parker songs solo. And also trying to play free, I would never take the songs and throw away the chords. I would play the melody and I would play these really open voicing’s with the left hand just two chords of voicing kind of like a counter melody. For the solo instead of playing the changers just stay in the basic key, I started doing a lot of reading on jazz, I was never into the commercial shit, I was a total purist. Not just free stuff, stuff from the 20s. I was into Louie Armstrong, Ellington, Mingus, and Billie Holiday, I have a real thing for Billie Holiday
Munster: How did the No wave movement come about?
James: I never tried to start a movement, and I don’t think any of those people tried to. No one, except really pretentious people ever sits down and says “I’m going to start a movement, its going to be called no wave and its going to be this and this and this”. No wave was just a label that a writer came up with, the album was called No in New York, so he took, no and added wave, so instead of new wave it was no wave. But I was friends with all those people. Mars was one of the first people I meet when I came to New York and in fact there drummer Nancy Arlen was my first girlfriend in New York and she introduced me to Arto Lindsay. This was the start of 76 and they just started rehearsing they didn’t do gigs till two years later. When I came to New York I had the intention of being a famous jazz musician. In 73 I was in a rock band called Death in Milwaukie, and there was a band that started as A Stooges Velvet Underground cover band that started writing their own stuff and they had a really talented keyboard player who had a fender Rhoads but had a completely different sound, he must have used distortion and he played a cross between Jon Cale and Cecil Taylor. The singer was around 6 foot 5 and he had the smallest range of a vocalist I’ve ever seen. He was actually before his time, all these guys in death metal bands that have vocals that sounds like there growling, his singing was like that but much more spear, it wasn’t like two piranhas battling for supremacy. Then he would put this silver glitter in his face and called himself Sterling Silver. I wasn’t in the band I was a roadie then they had this crowd that would do this wild dancing and ended up in this massive pile on the dance floor kind of like humping each other and shit. It was pretty shocking for Milwaukie in 1973 opening for Dr John, we had two gigs opening for Dr John. After that, at the same time I was going to a conservator in Milwaukie that had opened a jazz department and I was playing piano. My piano style was half Monk half Cecil Taylor. Most of the teachers and students were really conservative and they were horrified by my playing and they would not put up with me in the rhythm section. They would not give me a chance to work out a way to incorporate myself into a more straight rhythm section. I wasn’t Interested in learning how to play like Herby Hancock, McCoy Tyner, all these guys, all the piano payers were copying, why should I do that? I wanted to be completely original from the beginning. So I thought if I learn sax I wouldn’th ave to worry about this whole copying thing, plus the whole directness of the horn appealed to me. I was playing sax more a month the guys in Death asked if I wanted t play sax on a few songs. They had developed some songs that had long solos kind of like straight type thing. I would come on and do some solos. I would put my teeth on the reed and played like that which had a real piercing horrendous howl. Then the guitarists would put their guitars up against the amps to feed back and one by one would walk off and it would be just me playing away with the drummer, and the drummer would leave and it was then just me. And they gave me the name Dr Sax.
Munster: You mentioned how people didn’t get what you were doing with the style you were playing, so what was it like when you went to CBGBS, did the audience there get what you were about?
James: I WAS aware of the whole CBGBs scene before I moved to New York, the last week of 1975 was when I came to New York. I did my research for the big move I had been reading the Village Voice every week, looking at all the ads to see what music was going on, and it was a tremendous amount of music at the time. And I saw the ads for CBGBs and it was obviously a rock venue and the bands had interesting names and had pictures of the bands, but so small you couldn’t make it out. I could tell something was happening there even though I wasn’t sure what. I wanted to check it out but had no intention of playing in a rock band I wanted to become a famous jazz soloist and composer, and there were all these things called jazz lofts in So Ho and places in uptown New York, it was free jazz, a lot of musicians from Chicago and St Louis, and a lot had a rhyme and blues influence. Guys like Joe Bowie, Bobo Shaw, and I knew their music before I came to New York, Bobo recorded a song called Lovers Desire which I really liked. Sometimes I would play sax in the park just to practice, not to busk, just to practice. I was playing that one day and Bobo Shaw walked past and he was stunned and said hello and befriended me and I started hanging out with these guys, then I had my own free jazz band. It was mostly Jewish kids from Brooklyn who were my age then later a Japanese drummer. I got some gigs in some of those lofts, but it was obvious to me that, there was some other guys that had been playing sax for lot longer than me and had a much better technique then me and I was being judged by their standards. But also my whole personality and approach didn’t Fit in with the jazz scene at all, it was coming from rock n roll and they didn’t like that. The jazz audience in New York was these middle age hippies, and that was everything I hated at the time, I loved the music but hated the audience and I didn’t want to conform to the standards of these people because to me they didn’t really get what it was all about to me, this intellectual approach. So I started feeling more comfortable hanging out at CBGBs and Maxs. I liked the bands but I thought they were conservative by my standards, as good as a band like the Talking heads were they really didn’t do anything to radical musically. They were still using the basic chord progression that everyone was using. The one thing No Wave people had in common, it was more a case if different people having similar ideas at the same time the people getting together saying lets start a movement. Because all those people were too individualized to be apart of a movement. Which was the great thing about that scene, not just no wave other bands that came before it too. Each was so individual it had its own style which they had developed themselves and even though all the bands were friends and liked each other everyone wanted to be as an individual as possible so it was like the opposite of the English punk scene which was really conformist to me. It was the same kids buying the same clothes from the same stores, which were very inspired clothes but then you had a bunch of kids wearing it as a uniform it kind of missed the point of the rebellious nature of the concept.
Munster: When it comes to playing live do you just do a few shows in a row as opposed to a big tour?
James: when I saw go on tour I mean a really long tour. I’ll do two weeks, maybe three at the most. In each territory I have a band from there that I use. In Europe I have a French band and they have been playing with me for ten years as well. And I’ve played with them all over Europe and we’ve toured Brazil and Japan. And in different parts of the United States I’ve done the same thing I had a band from Chicago I toured the mid west with for a while and it’s the same concept with this Australian trip. Its something I’m used to and comfortable with.
Munster: any time in the studio coming up?
James: I am planning for 2016 to do an album with the French group, but mostly with some jazz musicians. In France the government gives a lot of support to the arts. And im kind of like honorary French citizen, as I’ve played with the French band for so long they will contribute money to the recording.
Munster: what does 2016 involve?
James: The recording project I just mentioned. Things are looking up, we got the Australian tour coming up and I have always wanted to come to Australia. After that I’m going to Tokyo, and I’m playing at this Jazz cub for three nights in a row, two sets a night, so look forward to that. There’s a whole lot of stuff I do, I do a solo thing where I play with mixes of my stuff with no sax or vocals so I can perform live to a backing track then I throw in other peoples stuff where I do live sax, it’s a pretty enjoyable show. I just want to keep playing I have no intention of stopping.
Munster: Tell us your favorite Fall LP if you have one please.
James: well I don’t have one. I don’t listen to hardly any music recorded after 1980, I I hardly listen to anything that is classified as new wave or punk, or anything classified from that. Not that I don’t like it its just I’m apart of that whole thing and I want my influences to come from the real motherload, like rare funk stuff, afro beats from the 70s, lately I’ve been listening to a lot of R n B stuff from early 60s like these New York records with big productions, like Benny King and the Drifters. I like the Fall but I can’t give you a favorite album, but I’ll give you a favorite moment, I was on the same bill with the Fall in Barcelona at a festival and Mark E Smith finished the set by going into his dressing room and doing the rest of the show there, which I thought was pretty inspired.
James Chance and the Contortions Australian tour dates
Thursday 14 January Northcote Social Club Melbourne
Friday 15 January Friday Nights at NGV
Saturday 16 January (late Arvo) Brooke St Pier @ Mofo Hobart
Saturday 16 January Faux Mo @ Mofo Hobart
Sunday 17 January Newtown Social Club Sydney