Too Weird for Punk: New York No Wave Legend James Chance Keeps On Contorting Himself

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When No Wave was born in a loft in Chelsea in 1978, at the center of the avant-garde musical movement was an awkward white boy who worshipped at the altar of James Brown. Born James Siegfried but known as James Chance or James White, he moved to New York at 22 years old in 1975, and never looked back. And while he’s lost a few strands of hair and gained a few pounds, he’s still contorting himself, and inspiring others to do the same.

No Wave was a fleeting moment in late-’70s New York City; a few years when a handful of bands deconstructed pop music, reclaiming sounds and defining their relationship to pop song structures. Its seminal document is No New York, a 12” LP with four songs each from four bands: Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, Mars, and James Chance and the Contortions. Brian Eno recorded the bands at The Artist’s Space, a loft in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The Contortions were wild, fusing jazz, funk and rock and roll; Chance abandoned the idea of chord changes, instead writing repetitive parts for each player to riff off of. An early lineup of the Contortions featured a six-foot Englishman who played an orange plastic toy electric guitar. Chance had been dating Lydia Lunch, and was actually in a version of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, but as his music got tighter, Lunch ran in the opposite direction. No New York captures the two bands headed in different directions.

“The first version of the Contortions was much more of a noise band, like the other No Wave bands,” Chance says. “But… after a while it became clear to me that I needed to have some more proficient musicians in order to play the music that I was writing.”

As he gravitated towards better musicians and tighter performances, he quickly evolved from his No Wave moment, but without much effort, one can see connections between No Wave, Sonic Youth, and ’80s noise; try a little harder and the movement’s influence on the scene in early-aughts Brooklyn is apparent. Chance’s life these days has little to do with any of this; his home is a time capsule that stopped collecting artifacts long ago. But the records live on in his memories, and for those lucky enough to catch one of his rare US shows, on stage.

James Chance & The Contortions, Live at Trans-Pecos, September 20, 2015. © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

Not long after I meet with James Chance at his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, he asks if I’ve heard his record Incorrigible!, a three-year old LP that was only released in France. I haven’t, so he burns me a copy with an odd contraption — a standalone multi-CD burner. Chance doesn’t use a computer or the Internet much; his website is run by a fella from his neighborhood named Tim Brown, who recognized him in the supermarket and volunteered to help him. As the burner spools up, he asks me about the Dada movement.

“I was just reading the book on the history of Dada,” he says. “It made me think that No Wave really was like a Dada movement in music. Not so much mine, but definitely [No New York contemporaries] DNA. It was totally like deconstructing music and starting all over again. No Wave was really kind of like that. [We were] trying to get rid of all the assumptions about how rock and roll music was made, and then start over again.”

The downtown scene in late-’70s New York City was culturally vibrant; punk was ascendant, with the Ramones and Richard Hell defining its sound and aesthetic, and bands like Television and the Talking Heads pushed the boundaries of pop music. But they were all just a little too square for Chance’s crowd.

“We all dug Richard Hell,” Chance admits. “[He] was one of the most interesting [and] the most advanced, musically. But to me and the other No Wave people; we dug those people, but they were too conservative. They were radical compared to Deep Purple, but they were using the same basic chord changes that had been used all along.”

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A lot of Chance’s music — and No Wave in general — channels punk’s energy and ethos, but he was too weird, even for them. Legs McNeil, whose Punk magazine and oral history Please Kill Me serve as the definitive voice of the era, was not impressed. Chance doesn’t remember fighting McNeil, but after rising from a booze blackout with a black eye, his friends seemed to.

“[McNeil] just always had this hostility towards me,” Chance says. “There were other people who were like that too, some people didn’t like that I was bringing in jazz and funk, overtly black music. It threatened them for some reason.”

The jazz (predominantly black musicians) and rock (primarily white musicians) music scenes downtown were oddly segregated — they occupied the same real estate, but there was little miscegenation between them. As Chance remembers it, he was one of, if not the only, one to move freely between the two worlds. “There were people who dug jazz, but they didn’t hang out or go into jazz clubs,” he explains. Chance says the jazz musicians of the day thought punk rock was beneath contempt; they didn’t even consider it music. “The scenes were like oil and water, [they] just didn’t mix.”

CBGB’s Hilly Kristal “just never got No Wave,” but Max’s Kansas City was more welcoming to the deconstructionist weirdos. A guy named Peter Crowley was running things, and he dug all the No Wave stuff. “He got it, so we all worked there,” Chance says. “Really, we spent our lives in those clubs.”

The early ’90s were tough for Chance — grunge’s predominant angst aesthetic didn’t jive with his earnest brand of dance funk. But when Henry Rollins and Rick Rubin’s Infinity Zero label reissued The Contortions’ debut album Buy, he took it as a sign to get back in the game. He made The Cooler, a dive on West 14th St., his musical home base for the latter half of the ’90s, even cutting a live album there. When he booked European tours, he hired local musicians, finding it cost-prohibitive to fly out an American band. Les Contortions, his lineup in France, has played with him for more than a decade. He’s still based in New York, though, despite his acknowledgement of its evolution.

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”The way it is now, the city is a shadow of what it was in the ’70s and ’80s,” Chance says. “It was so much more alive then. But it’s still the only place in America I’d probably want to live.”

It’s hard to imagine Chance living anywhere else. For a time, he tried to make it as a jazz musician while playing in Teenage Jesus. He says his free jazz group played in some of the infamous jazz lofts of the era. “I could see that I just wasn’t going to make it on the jazz scene,” Chance admits. “They just didn’t get me.”

But he met a lot of free jazz players, and eventually recruited some of them into his band, James White and the Blacks. Musicians from that scene soon discovered that if they put something funky together, they could work within rock and roll clubs and make more money. So they all started doing that, and by 1980-81, the two scenes had “just kind of merged together.” The rock and roll musicians stopped hating the jazz musicians, and vice versa. Everyone started getting along.

“I kind of did that,” Chance says, dropping his humility. “If it hadn’t been for me, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Chance is no longer a spring chicken; No New York will turn 40 in just a few years. But he feels like he has as much energy as he’s ever had. It’s hard to believe, watching him shuffle around his apartment’s carpet — much less so when he’s on stage.

“I don’t go out out and start hitting people, but other than that…” Chance says. “I probably dance more than I did. I think my dancing and my singing have actually improved. I’m even taking tap dance lessons.”

James Chance @ Trans-Pecos © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

But Chance is no mere legacy act, trotting himself out to be gawked at — when he plays a show, he’s determined to make an impact. At Todd P’s Trans-Pecos in Ridgewood, Queens, his raucous headlining set electrified the venue’s backyard, with a backing band full of wily veterans and a young drummer who hadn’t rehearsed. As promised, he wore his dancing shoes, and alternated between blowing on his sax and fingering the keyboard. Any expectations of the sexagenarian phoning it in were quickly and summarily blown away.

So why does this old man matter? No Wave might have only lasted for a breath, but it was a breath of fresh air, and laid the groundwork for bands such as Sonic Youth to fill the vacuum left by its departure in the early ’80s. Eno and David Byrne (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts) borrowed elements of Chance’s ’80s-era project, James White and the Blacks, and you can draw a line between No Wave, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the equally fleeting electroclash moment in early-aughts New York. James Chance was right in the middle of it—arguably the movement’s best musician.

But his legacy may lie more in the way he handled the complex role of race in underground music, serving as a bridge between the jazz and punk worlds of downtown New York City. Keenly aware of his whiteness, Chance never made any bones about who his influences were — to say he loves James Brown would be quite the understatement. Yet there’s a humility and respect with which he approaches the music that makes it clear that his appropriation is an homage, and he’s quick to admit that his audience has always been white.

“It all depends on how you do it,” Chance explains. “It can be done in a very exploitative way, like the way they did it in the ’50s — Pat Boone taking Little Richard records and having a much bigger hit with a watered-down imitation. But if you do it with respect for the material, I don’t see anything wrong with it. That’s what everyone does.”

“What if white people were not influenced by black music?” he asks. ”That’d be a pretty awful situation. I also think that white people have their own experience to bring to it, which is something different. It doesn’t mean it’s not just as valid. It’s just whether it’s good enough.”