JAMES CHANCE AND THE CONTORTIONS: I WAS ALWAYS SERIOUS
illustration by abraham jay torres
Contort yourself. Ostensibly, that’s the title of a song on the Buy LP by James Chance & The Contortions. Theoretically, it’s a chance craze that never was. Pragmatically, it’s less a lyric drenched in nihilism than it is an ideal for living. It’s not enough to push yourself. It’s not enough to test your limits. You need to move yourself in more ways than you ever thought you could possible move. Contort yourself. A shark keeps moving or it dies—and yet it never moves straight or in only one direction. James Chance understands this. Like that selfsame shark, he’s survived years in the dark depths of the cultural ocean, gracefully twisting though its tides and eddies. “There are no waves, only the ocean,” observed French director Claude Chabrol—and it is the totality of Chance’s vision that has maintained him for the better part of five decades. On November 11, James Chance & the Contortions released their latest album, The Flesh is Weak. Produced by Contortions guitarist Tomás Doncker, it’s a mix of past and future classics from the Chance repertoire. He appears tonight via the good graces of the fine folk at Part Time Punks for the first time in Los Angeles since 1982. Here, Chance talks about motivation, sentimentality, and the single-minded pursuit of individuality above all else. This interview by David Cotner.
Have you ever been in a fistfight that you really liked?
James Chance (vocals/sax/keyboards): [laughs] That I’ve really liked? Well, I’ve been in a couple that I didn’t remember after they happened. I was so drunk that I couldn’t remember. I had no memory of it. That whole aspect [of the Contortions] has been kind of exaggerated. I haven’t been in a fistfight since about 1979 or something. It was only a few times then. I’m actually—in my ‘real’ life—a very nonviolent person. I may have violent feelings, but I’m not into physical violence.
What was the goal with the Contortions?
James Chance: To create something that appealed to a rock ’n’ roll audience, like at CBGB or Max’s. I wanted to have a funk beat and a rock ’n’ roll attitude, and to have free jazz elements in it—and also to have some pure noise in it, like with Pat Place’s guitar playing. I didn’t think of it as something I was going for to get some kind of commercial success. It was just trying to create something … I started to see that if I stuck with jazz, I wouldn’t really be creating something new, you know? It’d all kind of been said already in jazz. I could come up with a variation on it, but the Contortions was a way that I could create a totally new thing—or at least a new combination of things.
What’s your biggest motivator? What makes you do what you want to do?
James Chance: Well, I want to get paid, that’s one thing. [laughs] I want to get paid, but I don’t want to compromise. I just want to play music that has soul. I play all kinds of different stuff. I still play the piano. Sometimes I play solo piano and standards—a little jazz trio. Sometimes I sing solo, too. Ballads. But whatever I do, it’s always my way. I’m not capable of sitting down and playing like Bird, and then turning around and playing like this other guy when he played a different style. It’s always totally my style.
You have to have your own voice.
James Chance: In a way, I’m lucky that way because that’s just really the only way I can function in music. I don’t really have a choice about it.
Speaking of having your own voice—you sound like you’re about 22. Really young. Do you feel young?
James Chance: Yeah! I do feel young! Young people seem to be able to relate to my music. I don’t think there are many people from the original scene from the 70s and 80s that have young fans … or the ones still doing music, I don’t think there’s too many that are actually appealing to younger people. Someone told me not too long ago that I have an immature attitude. Maybe that’s why young people can relate to me. I’ve never thought, ‘Oh, I have to be mature now! I have to write grown-up songs about fatherhood or cutting the lawn in the suburbs!’
Isn’t that what you were trying to get away from the whole time?
James Chance: A lot of people, even then, were very rebellious when they were younger—but when they get older, they think that they have to mature and mellow out and get serious or something. I was always serious! I think I still have the anger that I had in the beginning. It’s tempered with more experience, but I’ve still got the same attitude. People can feel that.
What were your goals artistically when you first started with music?
James Chance: I started playing piano when I was 7. I took lessons from nuns! Nuns displaying the typical kind of childhood exercise books and things like that. The two songs I liked that they had me play were ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’ by Charles Gounod—the theme music to Alfred Hitchcock Presents—and the tarantella, a wild dance from medieval times for when people got infected with hysteria—dancing mania. A couple of years later, when I was 12, I started taking lessons from an older guy in a music store that had me playing standards, and stride piano. He tried to teach me jazz, but I didn’t really understand too much about improvisation then. I didn’t really decide to have music as a career until I was about 19. I’d just discovered free jazz. I created my own piano style and I was just playing by myself—sort of a cross between Cecil Taylor and Thelonious Monk. I tried going to a music conservatory in Milwaukee, but you know the teachers—and most of the other students—were really conservative, and they didn’t know anything about free jazz … and didn’t want to know! [laughs] No one could play with me on piano, as far as the rhythm section. They just couldn’t relate to what I was doing—and they just acted like I couldn’t play, which wasn’t true! I just didn’t want play like Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner or any of those guys. I had no interest in learning all those voicings—it was a tremendous amount of work and I didn’t want to play that way. I just didn’t do it. After about a year, I started thinking that if I was playing the sax, I wouldn’t have to worry about being part of the rhythm section. I was always really drawn to the saxophone anyway. I was also in a rock band at that time called Death, doing Stooges and Velvet Underground covers, and then that evolved into doing originals. My ambition was always to be a jazz musician. That’s what I came to New York to do. There was a big loft jazz scene happening then with all these straight players—a lot of players from Chicago, St. Louis. Really great players, but I started to feel like—I’d only been playing sax for three or four years—there were so many technically much better sax players than me … and also my whole attitude was much more of rock ’n’ roll. The jazz people found me completely bewildering. I started getting more comfortable hanging out at CBGB and Max’s, and eventually I decided I would do something that would appeal to that audience, and put all the stuff I really liked into it—but it would still have a recognizable danceable beat, and be funky to a degree, and then put all the free jazz on top of that, and some of the noise elements from these other no wave people I was hanging out with.
What was it about the saxophone that spoke to you?
James Chance: Exactly what you’re saying: that it spoke to me. I figured it’s probably the closest instrument to the human voice that there is. It was just a much more direct thing than playing the piano. My big early influences were Albert Ayler and Marshall Allen, one of the sax players with Sun Ra. I also listened to all kinds of older stuff; I really got into late-period Lester Young for a while and later on Art Pepper, and all the funk players like Maceo [Parker]. Fela. He was another really self-taught guy, so I can relate to that. Junior Walker. A lot of old rhythm and blues guys from the 40s and 50s.
Fela’s an interesting character because he sings like he’s a musical instrument.
James Chance: His actual first instrument was trumpet. He was actually much more technically accomplished on the trumpet! His early groups were sort of highlife and jazz combinations. He was really good, too! Then he heard James Brown and went in the Afrobeat direction. I guess he gave up the trumpet then and switched to the sax.
What’s one reality of being a musician that you understand now but no one ever told you about when you started?
James Chance: Poverty.
James Chance: I’m kind of kidding, but the difficulty of making a living is an issue. There are very few musicians—especially now—who completely make their living through music. Most of them have some other side line. Most of the young musicians I meet say, ‘Oh, I’m a lawyer,’ or ‘Oh, I’m a paralegal’—‘I’m this, I’m that.’ There was no way anyone could predict—when I was coming up in the 70s—what would happen to the music business after digital came in and how all the money would just go out of it because people didn’t have to buy records anymore. No one could have possibly predicted that in 1976, when I came to New York—or even in the 90s! No one thought that. They should have. They should have realized what was coming, but it took everyone completely by surprise. All the record companies didn’t predict it.
But it’s a skill to navigate that kind of poverty.
James Chance: True. You have to have some kind of hustle.
Is your art where you want it to be at this point in time?
James Chance: Pretty much! I’m really happy with the band I have now and the new album. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done in a long time. They’re all guys that have played with me, off and on. Let’s start with who’s played the longest: Robert Aaron on sax, he’s been with me since about 1981. He’s on the Sax Maniac album that I did in 82 that’s going to be reissued very soon. The drummer, Richard Dworkin, has been with me since about 1985 or 86. The trumpet player and bass player started playing with me in the 90s, and Tomás Doncker, the guitarist, has also produced the album with me. It’s on his label True Groove. He was in The Contortions in 1980, when he was about 19 or 20. He was in the band for about a year. He was in that movie Downtown 81, the one with Debbie Harry. He was on one of the live albums we did around that time, and then I was really into changing the band constantly. I went through about four completely different lineups in two years. I ran into him just about four years ago, and I needed a guitarist, so I thought I’d call him. I just feel this band interprets my music really well, and they can do anything! If I want free jazz, they can do that. Richard Dworkin is the most versatile drummer I’ve ever worked with. Most drummers have some weakness—they can be great at funk but they can’t play jazz at all, or vice-versa. But I’ve never been able to stump Richard. Anything I need him to play, he can do it right away—beautifully. They’ve had tremendous experience, playing with all different kind of people. The trumpet player—Mac Gollehon—can play just about any kind of jazz you can think of, going back to big band; he’s played in all these big bands named after guys that have been dead for 30 years or more, but they still keep going! [laughs] I think he’s even played with some kind of Lawrence Welk thing. Same thing for Robert Aaron—he’s played with Blondie, Bowie; he was Wyclef Jean’s music director for quite a long time. They’ve all got tremendous experience. That’s the kind of people I like to work with.
Does that mean you’re going to be doing this more often?
James Chance: Yeah—it’s not always possible in every part of the world I play or go to to bring a whole band from New York, financially. As long as someone comes up with the money, I’ll take these guys. When I play other parts of the world, I have a French band called Les Contortions that have been playing with me for about ten years, whenever I go to Europe. I did an album—before this latest one—with them that was never really released in America. It didn’t get the attention it deserved; that’s a terribly good album, too. When I went to Australia last year, I played with an Australian band; a combination of guys from other bands in Australia. I can’t remember the names of them anymore! I don’t pay too much attention to contemporary music—most of the music I listen to was recorded before 1980. Almost all of what I listen to.
So if money is an issue in terms of getting the band together, are you saying that it took 35 years just to get the money together to finally bring you and the band out to Los Angeles?
James Chance: No, no, no. In 1982, I spent a year in L.A.—and that was enough for me for a while! L.A.’s not really my kind of town, you know, it’s too … especially because I don’t drive. At that time [in L.A.] I had a band with Flea and Hillel [Slovak], the guitarist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which happened just by chance. I had made a record with an L.A. label, which then folded, and the woman who produced it with me said, ‘Well, come out and stay with me and I’ll find another label for the record.’ So I did—but she never did find another label for the record, and I kind of got stranded in L.A. for a year.
How’d you get out?
James Chance: Well, I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard and … remember that band Thelonious Monster? [Thelonious Monster singer] Bob Forrest, the guy with that big teevee show! He just came up to me and said, ‘Wow, what are you doing in L.A.!’ He offered to put a band together for me, and he introduced me to those guys from the Chili Peppers. I worked around the West Coast with him for about a year, but eventually I just felt like I had to get back to New York. I think I was using the name James White & The Blacks then—it didn’t have a special name. It was a nice little band, though—in fact, I was also playing jazz with Flea’s stepfather [Nb. Walter Abdul Urban], who was a jazz bass player.
The connections you make over time.
James Chance: I’d love to do something with Flea. We’ve talked about it over the years.
Are you a perfectionist?
James Chance: Yeah, but not obsessionally so. To me, it’s the feel that’s important, not whether every single not is completely in tune. Players have their own tonality, sometimes—like me, for instance! [laughs] Or Jackie McLean—he plays out of tune, but that was just the way he played.
Are you sentimental about the records you’ve made?
James Chance: You mean the past records? No, I’m not very sentimental—in fact, I find it very difficult to listen to my records. I just pick them apart and find things I don’t like about them. I find it really hard to listen to my own records.
When it comes to Chance, what’s the luckiest thing that ever happened to you?
James Chance: One lucky thing was how I got my first saxophone. I was living in a ghetto in Milwaukee and my apartment was broken into. They got my stereo and a few other things, and my dad said to me, ‘Look, I will tell my insurance company that the stuff got stolen from my car—and I’ll get you some money.’ And he did! That’s how I got my first saxophone. I guess I was lucky that those junkies ripped me off.
JAMES CHANCE & THE CONTORTIONS WITH COLLAPSING SCENERY AND TRAPS P.S. ON SUN., MAR. 19, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 9 PM / $15-$18 / 18+.THEECHO.COM. JAMES CHANCE AND THE CONTORTIONS’ THE FLESH IS WEAK IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM TRUE GROOVE. VISIT JAMES CHANCE AT JAMESCHANCEOFFICIAL.BLOGSPOT.COM.