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No Wave icon James Chance gets back into the groove

Written by
David Chiu

NYC musician James Chance returns this November with a new studio album, The Flesh Is Weak, his first under the Contortions band name since 1979’s Buy. It’s not exactly a comeback: The iconoclastic saxophone player and singer with the large pompadour and dapper threads has been a consistent performer since the late ’70s, when his combination of James Brown–influenced soul, avant-garde jazz and punk attitude made him one of the stars of the city’s No Wave scene. While The Flesh Is Weak is funkier and more groove-driven than the jagged minimalism of his earlier works, the record shows that Chance hasn’t lost his manic energy and angst-driven point of view.

On the eve of his release show, we talked with Chance about the new record.

The Flesh Is Weak is billed as the first new Contortions studio album in decades.
It’s not 100 percent true. I’ve got different Contortions groups all over the world. When I go to places like Europe or Australia, I use a band from there because it’s not always financially possible to bring the band from New York. I’ve got a band of French musicians that have been backing me up in Europe for the past 10 years called Les Contortions. I did an album with them three years ago called Incorrigible! But it is true that there has not been an album by the Contortions since Buy.

There are a few covers on the record, including Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” What prompted that?
That’s one of my wife Judy’s favorite songs. She’s been asking me to do that for years. I actually bought that record on a 45 when it first came out, when I was about 13. I was not a Frank Sinatra fan, but I loved that song.

There’s also your take on the much-covered “I Who Have Nothing.”
I’ve been into soul music from the early ’60s. I really love emotional songs. It’s taken all this time for me to sing to a level where I can stand to listen to it [laughs] because I listen to my old vocals, and I just cringe.

You’re also known for your dark lyrics.
It’s the just the way that I look at the world. I have what most people would consider a very dark worldview. My lyrics pretty much say what they mean.

What’s your take on the current political climate?
I think it’s pretty dark and twisted. My family [in Wisconsin] is very liberal. They were all scoffing at Trump: “He’s not gonna get anywhere. Don’t worry about him.” I said, “No, you’re wrong. He’s definitely a menace, and he’ll go a lot further than you think.” And I was right. I’m not a big fan of Hillary, either.

You’ve been in NYC now for 40 years. Does the city still influence your art in some way?
I think so. As soon as I moved here, I just felt totally at home. It’s the only place I want to live in America, that’s for sure. To me it’s a pale shadow of what it was in the late ’70s or early ’80s. It was such a wild place. Anything could happen. Now it’s much more for the rich. Despite its tameness, I still love New York.

You used to get into confrontations with the audience. Do you still?
I don’t hit people, but I do jump out into the audience a lot at most shows. I mostly just jump out there and then dance. I do a lot more dancing than I used to.

James Chance and the Contortions play at the Bowery Electric Thursday, November 10; $15.

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