James Chance

  • The List
  • 23 April 2007

The contortionist

Sandra Marron talks to one of the founding figures of the no wave scene, James Chance, as he makes his Scottish debut at this year’s Triptych

James Chance is coming to Scotland for the first time in his career this fortnight. Like one of his alter ego namesakes, it might as well be the second coming of Jesus. Post-punk’s messiah, James Chance, of Contortions infamy, aka James White (& The Blacks), aka Teenage Jesus (& The Jerks), to name but a few of his incarnations - honours us by bringing his full-on live spectacular to its rightful Scottish spiritual home, Optimo (Espacio).

Known as the daddy of the no wave scene (the term no wave was spawned by the Eno-produced and now seminal record No New York, which featured a number of Chance compositions), Chance moved to the Big Apple when he was 19 and found himself playing free jazz before setting up Teenage Jesus & the Jerks with Lydia Lynch. He found New York at that time to be a hot bed of creativity, an exciting place to be in the late 70s and early 80s compared to today. ‘It was just full of young people,’ says Chance. ‘It was very cheap to live in this city then. Now it’s so expensive, there is no way young kids or people who don’t have any money could just come here and survive. You’ve got to be rich to live here now. The city was bankrupt then, they didn’t have any money to enforce all these laws so they didn’t bother people. They have even enforced this ridiculous cabaret law from the 20s nowadays - you can’t dance in little clubs and there’s no smoking in bars and restaurants - I don’t even smoke, but still it’s so sterile.’

Chance is a trained musician who originally played piano before picking up his now trademark sax. ‘One of the reasons I chose the sax was because I didn’t want to have to bother learning all the regular chords and everything on the piano, so with sax I didn’t have to bother about being a member of the rhythm section.’ There has always been divided opinion on the talent of some no wave artists when it came to playing their instruments, but Chance looked at this as an opportunity to create something new and exciting. ‘I deliberately used people who weren’t trained musicians,’ he explains. ‘A lot of trained musicians have their own prejudices and they can be just as closed-minded as anybody else. At that time you didn’t really think about whether or not someone was a trained musician. You just saw someone that looked like they belonged in your band or fit the idea of what your band should be and then you found something for them to play. The Contortions were a cross between people who could play and people that couldn’t, it was the tension between them that added a lot of the excitement to it.’

For his Glasgow show he has teamed with his French Contortions and has warned that we ‘shouldn’t rule out’ his - sometimes forced - audience participation. In the 80s, he often confronted audiences and dragged them up to dance, challenging them and really taking them out of their comfort zones as spectators. So, prepare to be shaken and stirred by the be-quiffed renegade punk-funk master.

James Chance & Les Contortions play Optimo as part of Triptych, Glasgow, Sun 29 Apr.

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