interview by GLENN O’BRIEN
photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
James Chance, aka James White, nee James Siegfried, is one artist who never disappointed me. When punk rock was jolting the world, James put the best parts of it into funk. Our friend Debbie Harry once said, “Punk is a time signature.” And at the end of the 1970s, funk, as practiced by James Brown, Bootsy Collins, and George Clinton, was the most revolutionary and relevant musical form. James sped up funk like the Ramones sped up three-chord rock and roll. It was syncopated and aggravated, angry but chilled, and an all-out assault on convention and stupidity. James is still doing his thing, working with a French band and doing DJ gigs. He has a new album due out this fall.
When I first saw James perform I thought he was going to be bigger than Mick Jagger. He was that electrifying. I was wrong. James Chance is not particularly interested in commercial success. But he is interested in amusing himself and he has high standards. James Brown called it “Doing it to Death.” And that’s what Chance has done, uncompromisingly, for three decades. He brought New Wave into No Wave, then took it beyond into unknown territory. He was a white devil who took the juju of free jazz, put fire ants in its pants, and forced it to dance. As a performer he combined the ideas of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty — whether he’d read about it or not — with Rat Pack cool and the hoodoo spirit of jazz.
At the time jazz had become listeners’ music. Audiences just sat there nodding their heads. James knew what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington knew: that jazz is supposed to connect the head to the crotch. So he took jazz back to the dance floor — and he did it with humor as black as its musical roots. James started out with the punkiest funk band ever, The Contortions. But just when they were achieving international fame, he split up this original No Wave band, shifted gears, and went disco. Then, to the horror of punks everywhere, he restyled himself as James White to front James White and The Blacks. But the fractured, almost satirical disco of “Contort Yourself” was a brilliant move. By the time he appeared in my film, Downtown 81, he was leading an all-black Blacks, as hot as any funk band in the world. I was friends with James and his genius girlfriend/manager/muse, Anya Phillips, who was one of the prime-movers and theorists of the scene. Her premature death robbed us of one of our most brilliant minds.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Let’s start with how you got into music in Milwaukee and what made you come to New York.
JAMES CHANCE — When I was about seven I took piano lessons. I started with the nuns at Catholic grade school. It was really boring, but when I was 11, I switched to lessons with a guy in a music store, and he taught me standards and stride piano. I didn’t really know anything about jazz. I got a book of Oscar Peterson solos — really tricky stuff — and learned to play them note for note, though I had no idea who Oscar Peterson was. Then The Beatles came out. I was intrigued by the fact that all these girls were obsessed with them, so I thought I’d check out rock and roll. By the summer of ’65, I was totally obsessed. I had a little transistor radio and I listened to it day and night. I never played in a garage band, because my teacher hated rock and roll. When the hippie era came along, I was listening to San Francisco bands, British blues, and Hendrix. I went to some pretty good rock festivals, especially one called Iola, out in the sticks in Wisconsin — it was like a mini-Altamont. The Stooges played and there were all these incredibly sleazy, grungy people crawling out from under rocks — the dregs of the hippie movement: bikers and drug dealers. Fat naked guys wandering around. On the last day of it bikers started shooting shotguns into the audience.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Ouch!
JAMES CHANCE — That kind of ended it. [Laughs] I started listening to jazz on this underground college radio show that played The Velvet Underground, The Mothers of Invention, and Coltrane. I was reading Jazz and Pop magazine, which covered rock and jazz, with articles about guys like Sunny Murray. I was intrigued, started buying jazz records, and totally lost interest in rock. I started listening to Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Mingus, and Bird. After high school I went to this little hippie experimental college. All I really wanted to do was play the piano in the basement of the dorm. I bought fake books with some Monk, Bird, and bebop tunes. Then one day I was in my dorm room listening to Mingus and someone knocked on the door and said, “What’s that? Mingus?” It was the guys who lived across the hall. They spent all their time smoking hash and listening to stuff like Pharoah Sanders. So I hung out with them. We formed a band called Monkey Lust. It was the first punk jazz band. We played simple Pharoah Sanders songs, a Sun Ra song, and two-chord things. I didn’t have a keyboard so I played percussion. Then we got a beat-up alto saxophone that we passed around. People tried to play it, but nobody could! After the semester was over I went back to Milwaukee. I had a friend there, a good guitar player at the Wisconsin College Conservatory. They’d just started a jazz department, so I went there. That’s where I met the trumpet player Brian Lynch, who’s extremely well known now. He played with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and all kinds of people. He won a Grammy. I started my first free jazz group with him.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What did you play?
JAMES CHANCE — At first I played piano, but after one semester I got an alto sax. Most people couldn’t relate to my piano playing. Nobody wanted to play free, so I started thinking it would be better if I wasn’t part of the rhythm section. I had no desire to play normal jazz piano. I didn’t want to learn to play like Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock. I didn’t want to put in the endless practice that would’ve been necessary to learn all those voicings. I just wanted to play my own way. I almost got kicked out the conservatory because I got into an argument with a teacher about my sax playing. He said, “Well, your tone really needs some work.” I said, “My tone is my tone, so fuck you.” In fact I had to switch my major to composition, because I was thrown out of the jazz department. Then my guitarist friend joined this rock band, Death. They played Stooges and Velvet Underground covers. At first I was a roadie and a dancer. People would come to the gigs and I’d do this crazy dance and end up in a big pile on the dance floor. The singer called himself Sterling Silver. He had a range of about three notes, but he had this incredible growl of a voice. I started playing sax with them, but it was the wrong place and time for that band. It was the height of the glitter era, but we were beyond glitter. We would’ve been great at CBGB’s, but in Milwaukee people couldn’t relate to it at all. It wasn’t their hostility; it was their incomprehension.
GLENN O’BRIEN— Were you listening to funk then?
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah, I went to this Jesuit high school and they had dances with local bands playing covers. One James Brown cover band was called The New Breed. I’ve been researching rare funk and I discovered a couple of great singles by them. I was really into James Brown and Kool & The Gang. But they didn’t influence my music until I started The Contortions.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Why did you move to New York?
JAMES CHANCE — Death split up into two bands. One was called White Cat Heat. It had myself, Brian Lynch, and the singer, who played totally free drums. We played Sunny Murray songs and Albert Ayler stuff. I also had this other group called The James Siegfried Quintet. I think it was the first and only free jazz group in Milwaukee. The singer — who was one of my best friends — killed himself, which was really depressing. I became obsessed with going to New York. I was sick of Milwaukee. Now I look back on those days with nostalgia: we used to hang out in gay bars where they played funk stuff and in a black stripper bar where the strippers danced to stuff like The Commodores and “Mama Feel Good” by Lyn Collins. I had a lot of fun there, actually. But it just got to be too much. I only had a year left at the Conservatory, but it didn’t seem to make much difference whether I graduated or not. So I started reading The Village Voice every week and seeing that, besides all the stuff about jazz clubs, there were little ads for CBGB’s. I didn’t know what it was, but it looked interesting. So I just decided to move there. I moved to New York in the very last week of 1975.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you know anybody?
JAMES CHANCE — I knew one guy: a friend of a friend, a musician who knew some of the guys from my jazz band in Milwaukee. He let me stay with him for a while. But, other than him, I didn’t know anybody.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You just showed up at CBGB’s.
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah. But I also started going to all the jazz lofts. On my first night in New York I saw an ad for La MaMa Theatre. All these guys kind of lived there and did a concert every week. That was the first place I went. I started seeing all the abandoned buildings and everything. I thought it was cool. Before I went to New York, people who’d probably never even been there said, “You’re going to New York? You’d better get a gun!” But I never felt threatened, except from people calling me a faggot, you know? There was this Puerto Rican bar across the street from La MaMa and these guys were playing congas, so started playing with them. I hung out at CB’s and Max’s, too, but it took a while to get to know anybody, because if you weren’t in a band, you were, like, nobody. I did meet some younger white jazz musicians, and I had this group called Flaming Youth — which was a weird name for a jazz group — that played a few gigs.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Where did the name come from?
JAMES CHANCE — From an old Duke Ellington song. But it sounded more like a heavy metal band name. I could see already that I wasn’t going to make it in the jazz scene. Too many guys could play sax better than me. I went to jazz sessions at places like The Tin Palace, which was a half a block from CBGB’s, and there were lofts on Bond Street. But there was no overlap. Nobody who went to The Tin Palace would ever go to CBGB’s, or vice versa. Once I was at The Tin Palace and two of The Dead Boys walked in, but just to buy cigarettes. I was out of place on the jazz scene because of my style, which no one could relate to. A pianist named John Fischer ran a loft called Environ in Soho. It was also a dance studio, with a beautiful polished floor, so when you went to a concert there you had to take your shoes off. Everyone sat on the floor. I hated that. I hated the audience. I loved the music but I hated the audience. They were such disgusting hippies. John Fisher decided to start a free big band. It was all white musicians around my age. He asked me to be in it, and we did a concert at Environ — a long continuous thing in which everyone got to write a section. I wrote a thing with a semi-funky vamp that I soloed over and walked out into the audience — all these people sitting on the floor. I got down on my knees and played right in their faces. Boy, did that piss Fischer off! He never spoke to me again after that. So I just started to realize that jazz was not happening for me.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It must have been a weird moment.
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah. Then I met Lydia Lunch at CBGB’s. She was dancing — and no one danced there. In the Midwest everybody danced, and I missed that. I thought it was really stupid that everyone in New York was more concerned with looking cool. She was dancing in the aisles, so I introduced myself. She’d just come down from Rochester and she showed me this long prose poem she’d written. I was really impressed with it. By that time I had an apartment on 2nd Street between A and B. It cost about $110 a month. I think it’d been a drug den because it was all boarded up. One day she knocked on my door and said she needed a place to stay. So we lived together for a year or more. It wasn’t like a boyfriend-girlfriend thing. She got some old beat-up guitar and started showing me her songs. I encouraged her. So I ended up being in Teenage Jesus for most of ’77. Then she kicked me out because she wanted it to be even more minimal than it already was.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It wasn’t because you were getting too much attention?
JAMES CHANCE — That was part of it. Anyway, she kicked me out and that’s when I started The Contortions. I got the name from a Robert Palmer review in the New York Times of that concert in Environ. He didn’t mention my name, but he wrote that the saxophonist in the group did more of a contortionist’s act than music.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Didn’t the original Contortions have the painter James Nares in it?
JAMES CHANCE — It was James Nares and Reck, from Teenage Jesus. He had a Japanese friend named Chico — a drummer — and we had Pat Place and Adele Bertei. Adele had never played keyboard before. That was my idea. For a while I wasn’t sure if I was going to be the full-time lead singer. I tried a couple girl singers. Finally I decided that I would sing everything.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How did you meet Anya?
JAMES CHANCE — Well, I knew who Anya was when I first started hanging out. She was a real presence on the scene. I watched her from afar and a couple times I tried to talk to her and got slapped down, completely. Lydia hated Anya. She’d plot against her, saying, like, “Let’s do this and let’s do that to Anya!” And then Anya met a German filmmaker and she went to Germany for a while, and when she came back I was doing the early gigs with The Contortions. That X magazine benefit was the first one she came to and the first time I went into the audience attacking people.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Was that when she decided she liked you?
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah, I sort of worked my way to the back of the audience. She was there sitting in a chair. I saw her and thought, “Should I attack her? No, better not.” But she came up to me afterward and we started hanging out, and somehow she decided to be Teenage Jesus’s manager. That was a real disaster. I don’t think Lydia ever did one thing that Anya suggested. Lydia did whatever she wanted, so it didn’t last long. Then Anya decided to manage The Contortions, who she didn’t like at all. By then the Japanese guys’ visas had run out and they went back to Tokyo and James Nares decided to quit. That’s when I got Jody Harris, and George Scott, who had been in a band called The Jack Ruby Band. They were pretty good. They weren’t really punk; they were like a Midwest band, like the MC5 or The Stooges. They had a singer who was pretty good, but he ended up in a mental hospital, and without him they weren’t very good. Lydia was a big fan of theirs and she used to take me to their rehearsals. That’s how I met George, who was the bass player. He’d never played any kind of funk music. I taught him everything, note for note. We rehearsed in this place run by a black guy with an attitude. A lot of black people back then had an attitude toward white people. In Milwaukee we knew all these black strippers and I used to go sit in these black after-hours clubs and everyone was cool. In New York there was this incredible hostility between the races. Anyway, we were rehearsing, and on a break this guy burst into the room and said, “I can’t stand listening to this shit anymore!” He turned to George and said, “You! You think you can play funk? I want to hear you play a funk bass line!” George couldn’t play a funk bass line to save his life. But he improved.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That was a great band. Why did it break up?
JAMES CHANCE — Well, when Anya became our manager, everyone said, “She’s your girlfriend! She can’t be the manager.” Pat and Adele were cool with it, but the guys were really against it. But I insisted. And she immediately got us working, headlining at Max’s, whereas before we’d just been opening up for other bands. Maybe that would’ve happened anyway. But all the older people on the scene had tremendous respect for Anya. The fact that she was managing The Contortions made a lot of people accept us right away.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Who made the connection with Michael Zilkha and Ze Records?
JAMES CHANCE — He just started hanging out and introduced himself to me and Anya. We had already made the No New York album. That came out of a weekend where all the No Wave bands played at Artists’ Space. Anya got involved right after the No Wave, No New York sessions.
GLENN O’BRIEN — The Ze records were very well-produced and packaged.
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah, that great Off White album was Michael Zilkha’s idea. He said, “Do a disco album. Whatever your idea is of disco, do it.” He never came to the sessions. He just let me do it. I sort of took a Contortions album and put a kind of a disco beat to it. But I didn’t realize that in disco you had to stay within certain parameters of tempo. So it was too fast. Michael brought in August Darnell to redo it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I love August’s remix of “Contort Yourself.”
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah, it sounds great on a dance floor. But the guys hated it. In fact, I think they’d already quit when it was finished. See, we did Off White first and then we did Buy the Contortions, but there was all this tension building up in the band. Adele had quit about four times before she finally said, “I’m going to really quit.” It’s the typical band tension. When it started out, it was real democratic. I didn’t take any more money than anyone else. I never thought about the fact that I was writing all the material. When Anya got involved, it wasn’t democratic anymore. She was really concerned with the image. We bought all these outfits and they got really threatened by the whole disco idea. But it was really just a conceptual thing. It wasn’t like we were turning into KC and The Sunshine Band.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Disco was inflammatory. There was a big article in the Soho News in which Anya talked about getting rich and moving uptown, away from the disgusting pot-smoking hippies who listened to Television.
JAMES CHANCE — A lot of people were offended. The first time we played in Paris, in the summer of ’79, there was a big riot. It was in a circus tent. People started throwing things. One part of the audience fought another. People stormed the stage. The police finally stopped it. I was told later that it was because Anya and I had done an interview in Libération, saying that we wanted to get rich, and these anarchists, who had something to do with this concert, got very upset about it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When you formed James White and The Blacks it wasn’t the end of The Contortions. I always thought it was based on the concept of Parliament/Funkadelic. One group, with multiple personalities.
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah, that was the basic idea. We did do some great James White and The Blacks shows in New York with a horn section and dancers and backup singers. But I never had the
opportunity to really tour with that band. We did that after we did the Buy the Contortions album. About a month later we did the Paris thing that ended in the riot. That’s when everybody quit again.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Was that when you put together the Black band?
JAMES CHANCE — No, that was later, when we found out that Anya had cancer. I put together a new Contortions with Patrick Geoffrois on guitar, Bradley Field on bongos, and Steve Kramer on organ. We had a black guy from the Bronx named James Webster playing bass. We used to call him Funkmaster. He was a street kind of guy who wore purple polyester suits and big platforms. For a while we had Mickey Sevilla on drums.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Right, from The Savannah Band. He was excellent.
JAMES CHANCE — Kristian Hoffman was playing slide guitar. Then I ran into Joe Bowie. He was starting the band Defunkt, and they kind of infiltrated. For a while I had some of the guys from Defunkt and some of the other guys. But it didn’t work. Kristian made it clear that he couldn’t stand being around these black guys. Bradley never learned to play the bongos. We just had him up there for show. After a while we didn’t even turn his pickups on.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, he did look great!
JAMES CHANCE — And Steven Kramer just got too fucked up on drugs and he left New York. So after a while, it was basically Defunkt and Patrick backing me up. For a year or two I was constantly changing musicians, mostly using black guys. Every few shows I’d have different guys.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That band in Downtown 81 was outstanding — great rhythm section, great horns.
JAMES CHANCE — That band was stable for about six months, right before Anya died.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You had that hot rhythm guitar player, Tomas Doncker.
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah. The other one was Bern Nix, who played with Ornette Coleman. When Anya died I broke up that band and put together the band that did the Sax Maniac album: Jerry Agony on guitar and another white guy, Chris Cunningham. That was a great band. It was together for about three years.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When did you start working with Robert Aaron?
JAMES CHANCE — Around the time of the Sax Maniac album, in ’80 or ’81.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Robert was like the secret weapon of the scene — he played horns and piano and just about everything else. He worked with you and Blondie and Chic and on Nile Rodgers’ projects. You’ve been working with him ever since, right?
JAMES CHANCE — Pretty much. Around ’85 or ’86, he started playing with Edwige. I started sitting in with Edwige and playing jazz — and usually Robert was in the band, doing standards, not free stuff.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You went back to keyboard, right? Playing organ James Brown style.
JAMES CHANCE — Sort of. I didn’t really get back to keyboards until the ’90s. Michael Zilkha bought me a really nice keyboard and I actually learned to play real jazz changes and come up with my own voicings. Now I play as much keyboard as I do sax. Maybe more. It’s my original instrument. I have better technique on the piano than on the sax.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What’s your new record like?
JAMES CHANCE — It’s with the French group that I’ve had for about five years.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How did you get together?
JAMES CHANCE — I’d been working quite a bit in Europe, bringing a band over from New York. I had a gig in Paris, the first in a really long time, and there was a misunderstanding about money. I found out at the last minute that they were expecting me to pay for the plane tickets. I wouldn’t have made a dime, so I tried to cancel it. But the festival people said, “No you can’t. We’re a little festival and you’re the headliner. We’ll get you a band.” The guys were from Rennes, in Brittany. I had a lot of trepidation about it, because when I auditioned European musicians in the ’80s, I wasn’t impressed. But these guys learned all the songs by themselves and they arranged a gig in Rennes before the Paris one. We had one rehearsal and I was really impressed. They’re real pros and the drummer is incredible. The economy was going down and there wasn’t money to bring bands from New York, so they backed me up on all my European dates. They’re incredibly dedicated. They even sometimes drive the van.
GLENN O’BRIEN — A couple of years ago you gave me a CD of jazz-oriented music you’d been working on with Robert Aaron. Was that ever released?
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah, it came out on the French label, Le Son Du Maquis. The original title was “Down and Dirty” but now it’s The Fix Is In. That band is called Terminal City. It’s more jazz-influenced. The new one is basically a rock and roll album. It’s got a lot of fast funky songs; one sort of jazz tune, the standard, “Yesterdays” — and the Gil Scott-Heron song, “Home is Where the Hatred is.” It’s the first time I actually recorded an album digitally. It’s the first studio album with The Contortions for a really long time. It’s probably the best-produced album I’ve ever done.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Who produced it?
JAMES CHANCE — I did.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Does Robert Aaron play on it?
JAMES CHANCE — He’s going in to do the overdubs — Robert and the same trumpet player and vibes player that were on The Fix Is In album. There’s a really good dance song called “The Splurge.” And there’s a song called “Incorrigible” that’s like a funky Stooges song.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Will you play in New York?
JAMES CHANCE — I’ve been playing in New York every so often. I played with the original Contortions at Le Poisson Rouge last November. I haven’t really done anything since then. I get much better money in Europe. But now I’ve got an agent, and I want to work here more. I also do these DJ things.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you play funk records?
JAMES CHANCE — Yeah, rare funk and African stuff, mostly, and things from the ’60s, like The Rascals and Mitch Ryder. What makes it different is that I play the sax live with it. I play along with mixes of my recent stuff, but also with other people’s records, too. I go out into the audience or out on the dance floor and play sax. I walk the bar.
GLENN O’BRIEN — And you haven’t attacked anyone?
JAMES CHANCE — I haven’t. Lately.
[Table of contents]
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by Terry Richardson
by Olivier Zahm
by Alex Israel
by Rachel Chandler
by Sabine Heller
by Alex Israel
by Olivier Zahm
by Matt Sweeney
by Kazumi Asamura Hayashi
by Olivier Zahm
by Marcelo krasilcic
by Dominique Isserman
by Stacey Mark
by Camille Bidault Waddington
by Olivier Zahm
by Martien Mulder
by Steven Klein
by Magnus Unnar
by Theo Wenner
by Max Snow
by Olivier Zahm
by Glenn O'Brien
by Lola Schnabel
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Lisa Eisner’s Garden
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by Rachel Chandler and James Moores
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Mehdi Belaj Kacem
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night pictures by Olivier Zahm with a portfolio by Ron Galella
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