Complete Interview with James Chance!


By Frank Spignese
June 2007

You’re coming back to Japan? How was your first tour over here?
JC: It was great! All the shows were sold out; we had a really good time. There were so many young people there, it was kinda surprising.

I got your latest album (Get Down and Dirty!) and it’s a beautiful album, very cinematic, very visual. But it’s a big departure from your earlier work. Could you have foreseen yourself making this kind of music back in ’78 or ’79?
JC: “Probably no...Not in those years. When I first started I really wanted to be a jazz musician. That’s why I came to New York. That was my ambition. After a while I just started to feel that wasn’t going to happen and I moved more onto the rock side. For awhile I had a reaction against jazz and thought that I’d never want to play it again but that changed later.”

In the albums liner notes you refer to contemporary music as being “emotionally and melodically poverty-stricken drivel being mass produced”. Do you actively listen to new music or is that your sixth sense talking?
JC: “Definitely mainstream music...I hear that just by watching television. I was talking about like a ballad now or something, it’s got no melody. It’s very simple chords repeated over and over with very little melody. Back in the old days songs actually had melody and complicated chord progressions that most people today couldn’t even write if they tried.”

A lot of acts today (The Blues Explosion, Liars, The Rapture) sight you as an influence or sound a lot like you. Is this flattering? couldn’t care less?
JC: “Its kinda flattering but I don’t think many of them really get the funk side of my music...or maybe that’s just not what they’re interested for themselves.”

Did you happen to see that recent Kill Your Idols documentary?
JC: No I didn’t. I read about it but I didn’t see it. Some of the reviews that I read said that I should have been in it.

One of the overriding themes is juxtaposing New York in the late 70s/early 80s and the kids in New York today. A few people (Lydia Lunch, Glenn Branca) really tear these kids a new asshole. Do you think this is completely fair? Are they doing anything new or are they just a bunch of spoiled brats?
JC: There’s a lot of spoiled brats, but I don’t know...the kids in the bands, they’re trying to do something. I wouldn’t completely put them down. It’s hard to do something really new now. It’s almost impossible. Even what I did with the Contortions I wouldn’t consider completely new because I was just putting together certain elements that had never been put together before. I wouldn’t say that it was completely groundbreaking. That’s all that you can really do now is combine different things in different ways.

When ever writers write about your music they throw around adjectives like ‘nihilistic’, ‘deconstructive’, ‘antagonistic’ if contempt for music were the sole catalyst. But when I listen to your music, I hear a lot of attention and lot of thought, a lot of, for lack of a better for the music.
JC: Well, yeah...It wasn’t contempt for was more contempt for people! (laughs)

From the late-80s to the mid-90s you took a bit of a sabbatical. Why’d you put the breaks on for that time?
JC: Well, basically because there really wasn’t that much interest out there. I was just completely fed up with the music industry. I had made so many records where the record company folded right after it came out or even before it came out. There was always some problem that had nothing to do with music. It became every frustrating and the scene around that time; it was all grunge and all this kinda stuff that I couldn’t relate to it at all. I’ve never been the kind to go out and promote myself and knock myself out trying to force myself on an industry that isn’t interested. But then, later on what I was doing got older enough for it to be considered nostalgic I guess.

In the past couple years you’ve had two career spanning compilations come out (Sax Education, Irresistible Impulse). Does having your music reissued as such feel like “it’s about time somebody properly anthologized my work” or is like “fuck the past, lets focus on what I’m doing now”?
JC: was fine with me because it enabled me to start working again. So I was totally happy about that. I’ve actually had a lot trouble with the Down And Dirty album. It hasn’t been released outside Japan because for the rock labels it’s too jazz and for the jazz labels it’s too rock. The industry puts you in a category and if you do anything that spans categories, they can’t relate.

I heard that you were first taught music by nuns.
JC: Yeah, it almost ruined me. They weren’t mean or anything. It was just really rote, reading music off of paper and things like that.

What was it like growing up in Milwaukee and playing music?
JC: I started the first free jazz group in Milwaukee. When I was in high school I was always playing the piano by myself. I never was in any garage bands and I didn’t want to be a professional musician until I was about nineteen. And then I started going to a conservatory that had a jazz department and I was studying composition and my piano playing was like a cross between Cecil Taylor and Monk. And everybody else there was very straight and literally couldn’t play with me. That’s one reason I switched to sax, I had no interest in becoming like a conventional piano player and learning all the regular chords and all that all that. I just didn’t care about that at the time. I was also in a band called Death that was very Stooges, Velvet Underground sounding.

Do you think your music would sound different if you were born in a larger metropolis like New York or Los Angeles?
JC: I think most of the great rock and roll has come from the Midwest and one thing that we were all really into was dancing. When I came to New York, one thing that I didn’t like was like Max’ Kansas City or CBGBs, they didn’t even have dance floors. Everybody just sat around and that was really anathema to me.

You took part in the late-70s loft free-jazz scene in NYC. What was that like?
JC: I had a little band. I had two Jewish guys from Brooklyn and a Japanese trumpet player. It was free jazz, mostly material that I had written myself, kinda really Ayler influenced. And I also took some lessons with David Murray for awhile. And almost the first thing he said to me at the first lesson was ‘you’re not gonna be a jazz musician, you’re gonna be a rock and roll star!’

I’m sure you answered this question a thousand times, but what was the motivation for getting into fist fights with your audience back in the day?
JC: The real beginning of it was that I just got disgusted that they weren’t dancing. The original audience for The Contortions was mainly like SoHo type artists and I just didn’t like the whole attitude, they thought they were so cool, they thought they were the hippest thing around. I wanted to get some sort of primal emotional reaction out of these people.”

When did it get to be too much?
JC: It got a lot of publicity because of that and people starting coming just for that. And the whole thing was really spontaneous and I didn’t want it to devolve into this sort of shtick. I still once and awhile jump in the audience. You never know. I’m not gonna take it as far as starting a fight with someone because for me it’s not worth it. I’ve done that. I’m much more into being an entertainer in the old school sense. The whole scene was at CBGB’s and Max’s and it was not that big of a group, and I came there in the beginning of ’76 and the scene already had been going for awhile by then. And I was like a real outsider and you really weren’t anybody if you weren’t in a band. It was just a thing of wanting to show these people. Because I wasn’t even all that impresses with all those bands. I thought that the band that I was in back in Milwaukee, Death, was better than most of them! Except for Suicide and maybe Bob Quinne and Richard Hell’s band...I didn’t think that they were really doing anything innovative.

Whenever a jazz writer is trying to convince a reader that a more esoteric musician is part of the jazz universe, they often use the expression “they are steeped in the tradition”. I read this recently in a review of a reissue of your debut album. Do you feel “steeped in the tradition”?
JC: Yeah, I do because actually I hardly ever listen to any music that was made after 1980. I do consider myself steeped in the tradition. I think it’s a shame that younger kids now their knowledge of even rock and roll doesn’t even go back that far. They don’t really know where it all comes from. And that’s really important to me.”

Along those lines, throughout the history of American music it seems that whites have been the custodians of black music. Does this bother you?
JC: It’s always been that way. The majority of black people certainly weren’t into jazz in the 60’s. All the people that liked free-jazz were all white too. I spent a year at this liberal arts college and I discovered that I was gonna have a black roommate and I was into all of this black music and hardly ever met any black people in my life. It turned out this guy was like a total theater fag who was completely into the whitest music you could ever imagine! It made me realize, you try to make these distinctions, black, white and all that, because everything is all mixed up, you know?

Speaking of Great Black Music...James Brown passed recently. Anyway last words on him? What did he mean to you?
JC: As far as my career, I think he almost meant everything. It’s hard to imagine the Contortions or James White and The Blacks without James Brown. He almost gave me a blueprint to follow. I don’t think anyone has really gone beyond what he did as far as like funk music. Even George Clinton, he did something different, but I don’t think he took it farther.”

One last thing. This was before my time, but I always hear people who were in NYC in the 70s and 80s say that it was a much grittier place then than it is now. Would you agree?
JC: Oh, definitely. It’s become so straight compared to the way it was then. At that time there was such an incredible influx of young people with no money who just came here to do something creative. And people like that just couldn’t exist in New York the way it is now. They couldn’t afford to live here. The young people who are coming here now are rich kids basically.

Was it much more dangerous of a city back then?
JC: It was dangerous but it was exaggerated. When I told people in Milwaukee I was coming to New York they all said ‘Oh, you better get a gun! You better get a gun if you’re going on the subway.’ I mean, I was mugged a couple times...but I was always pretty comfortable.

Read Frank's special to The Daily Yomiuri from June 9, 2007

2007 6/12 up


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