Photo by Tim Broun
Interview by Tim Broun
I sat down with Pat Place on Sept. 20, 2011, in her apartment in Soho, NYC. Over Mexican food, we discussed her life in music & art. A long time hero of mine, I was happy to finally get to spend some time with her, and to get to know her. As a founding member & guitarist for both the Contortions, and the Bush Tetras, Pat has constantly blazed a trail of cool that few others have trodden.
These days, besides doing the occasional gig with the Bush Tetras, or the Contortions, Pat spends a lot of time working on her art. For some time she has worked with the Jane Kim Gallery. In December, she'll take part in a multi-artist show curated by Kevin Teare (ex-MX-80 Sound), along with noted singer/songwriter/artist Bobby Neuwirth, and a couple of others at the Keyes Art on West 21st Street in Chelsea, New York City. For more information visit http://juliekeyesart.com/index.html.
PSF: Lets start with where your from. Where did you grow up?
PP: Mostly Chicago... the suburbs of Chicago. Right outside as a kid. Moved to L.A. for a short time and moved back. Went to high school in the suburbs of Chicago.
PSF: And was guitar your first instrument?
PP: (Laughs)... no, no, well you know, that's a...
PSF: ...or was it flutaphone? (ED NOTE: a plastic recorder/woodwind)
PP: You know, that's a funny question. First instrument... Piano. My parents made my brother and I take piano lessons. But I was not a good student so I can't say that I really went anywhere with that. When The Beatles first played on Ed Sullivan, I said, "I need a guitar," and I went into the basement and drew pictures of The Beatles, constantly. I became obsessed because that was so cool, right? But they bought me an acoustic guitar. I think the action was probably an inch off the neck and I just said, "Ugh... this is too hard." And I didn't pick up guitar again until I was probably, I don't know, like, 24.
PP: Yeah. When I first started playing with James (Chance), I had played guitar about three weeks.
PSF: Wow! That's amazing!
PP: (Laughs) That's a jumping-forward answer. Well, no, no. When I was in high school, and I went to art school, I was way into visual art. That's where I was coming from.
PSF: So you were visual...
PP: I have a BFA in painting & sculpture, and I came to New York City in 1975 to pursue a career as an artist. And I ended up hanging out at CBGB's, and eventually meeting James and thinking, "Oh, I think I wanna play music."
PSF: Where did you go to art school?
PP: Northern Illinois University. How I got to New York is, I finished up at Skidmore. They had a summer art program. I did my last nine credits up there because I had to get out of Illinois. The university is about an hour outside of Chicago, and I met some kids who were living in New York. It was an art program up there - a summer art program. So they said "Come on down and hang out." It's up in Saratoga Springs.
PSF: And they said "New York is where it's at."
PP: They said, come on down. Actually the girl (laughs) who was - she was subletting from Lucy Lippard, who is an art critic, someone that I had read in college, her art criticism. She was subletting her loft on Prince and West Broadway. So she said, "Come on down and stay with me." And I knew all the galleries were on West Broadway then, and I knew that because I'd been here in my senior year. So I just felt like "Okay, this is it. This is where I want to be." Then - about a year later - I was going to a lot of art stuff. Like Mickey Ruskin was running the Ocean Club - it was a bar/restaurant/club - the whole length of Chambers street.
PSF: After he was at Max's?
PP: Right. You'd go down there and hang out and... I remember seeing John Cale, Talking Heads. People would just be playing there. And then CBGB's, of course, was going on and I had started hanging out there, and it was just so happening at that moment.
PSF: So it's around 1975... That must have felt like a huge opportunity. I mean, you were moving right into the middle of the New York art scene.
PP: Well, kind of. I was working at Pearl Paint. (laughs)
PSF: Well, you gotta pay the bills.
PP: Yeah, yeah.
PSF: How did you get taken off of that course? Were your friends hanging out at the rock clubs? How did you get sucked into that?
PP: You know, it was downtown. Everything was kind of like mashed together really, so you couldn't really miss it with that stuff because, like I said, you'd go to the Ocean Club, and these people would be playing. But really what happened is, a year after I was in New York, my brother was sick and he was living in San Francisco and he was dying. I went to visit him, and he died, and it sort of blew my mind. He was 28. I came back, quit the job. I got on unemployment and all of a sudden I'm like, 22. I'm on unemployment and sharing the apartment of course, with three or four people, and I could go out at midnight and go down to CBGB's. So I was doing that.
And then No Wave was going on. Punk (too). I mean, there was just - the best - it was so cool, what was going on at that moment. That was probably '77. DNA and Mars and Teenage Jesus... they were starting, so that whole wave was coming in, and from an art student perspective, it segues into performance art, and that dada kind of stuff. Really interesting.
PSF: Did your tastes in art or music always lean towards the...
PP: (laughs) ...The nihilistic?
PSF: Well, yeah, or the avant garde, or the underground.
PP: Oh yes. Totally.
PSF: So, just to touch back a little, when you were growing up, obviously you were a Beatles fan...
PP: Well, they were kinda the first ones that came along. I mean, I was probably nine when that hit, you know?
PSF: So they opened your eyes to music at least?
PP: Well, yeah. My brother was listening to what was happening - Peter, Paul, and Mary, more folky kind of stuff, but yeah! That kinda brought rock and roll out.
PSF: So what were you listening to as a teenager?
PP: Well, I hate to date myself, but I graduated from college in '75. When I graduated high school, I was 17 so you know, what was going on in music from '68 to '71 - it's like the best stuff ever, right? I mean, you can go on and on...
PSF: There's a lot. There's a very wide range of stuff.
PP: A whole wide range of stuff, and it was all great. I mean, it was such a moment.
PSF: You go from everything from the Velvets and the MC5 to what? James Taylor and... ?
PP: Yeah. And Cream, The Doors, Blind Faith, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Faces. I mean, you could go on. And on and on. It's amazing, and I was totally way into all of it, but I didn't think of playing it. I just was a fan, and I bought a lot of albums, and the thing about Chicago right before - I remember when I was in junior high, there were a lot of soul radio stations, so that was going on too.
PSF: Curtis Mayfield?
PP: Yeah, and people like Sam and Dave and just this really cool soul stuff. All the names are escaping me but - I was into all that stuff. I actually still have some of the singles... "Boogaloo Down Broadway"... by Fantastic... Together: Johnny C!
PP: You know him!
PP: But that stuff was super cool. So that was like a benefit of growing up around Chicago because there was a kind of music scene aside from you know, the rock scene. Like, lets say '66, '67 before all the cool rock and roll hit - Jimi Hendrix and everything. Just growing up as a teenager with that stuff. That was kind of... that's still... I still think "Wow." That was really a moment.
PSF: It stays with you. I have similar memories from listening to college radio and discovering this stuff when I was 15, which was around '79 and '80. I would tune into WNYU or stations like that and their, so called, you know "new music " shows. And they were playing underground stuff.
(Conversation picks up later, discussing No Wave, and specifically Lydia Lunch, and the Teenage Jesus reunion in 2008)
PP: So you're asking with Lydia - was it funny or was it just more like, serious, like intense?
PSF: Yeah, I mean, if you read about her and, you know, and James for that matter, when you read the stories, it's always, "they were dangerous." And James got a lot of press for going into the audience and picking fights or - and Lydia is very confrontational.
PSF: But like I said, seeing the reunion thing, I was kind of... it was kind of amusing.
PP: Yeah. The way she insults the audience.
PSF: I found it kind of hard to take seriously which is no disrespect to her... I'm trying to figure out where she's coming from. What's your perspective on that?
PSF: Because you know her.
PP: Oh well, I think she's, and like you said, it's her schtick to insult. To, you know, to berate and insult. It's - oh man - what is it? Is it ironic? Is it kind of like what the audience expects her to be like, so she has to play to that a little bit? You know, she's confrontational. Have you seen her spoken word stuff?
PSF: No, like I said, as far as I can recall the only time I've ever seen her perform was that Teenage Jesus thing.
PP: I mean, it's true, it wasn't as scary as at the Knitting Factory. It wasn't really scary. I mean, I used to go and see her play at CBGB's or Max's back in the seventies, and it was just kind of great because it was so - like you'd never seen people do thirty second songs, and singing [growly voice] "Little orphans running through the snow, in the bloody snow." And then she's off the stage in ten or 15 minutes! That's her schtick. That's what she does. So it wasn't really having the desired effect on the Knitting Factory?
PSF: At least for me, personally. And also, everybody there I think... it's a "Teenage Jesus reunion."
PP: Yeah, yeah...
PSF: With Thurston Moore in the band. So everybody is hyper-aware of what it...
PP: Like what it is already.
PSF: What it's supposed to be.
PP: So there's no surprise factor?
PSF: Right, right.
PP: Whereas it was pretty edgy when she'd just show up at CBGB's and play these crazy (shows). It had more edge to it, but I was a huge fan back in the day, and I still love what she does.
PSF: Let's get back to you a little bit if you don't mind. So what happened... You're in New York. You're working at Pearl Paint. You are going out a lot to...
PP: Yeah, well, after San Francisco and my brother died I came back and I got...
PSF: Unemployment, right?
PP: Because basically I had a semi-nervous breakdown about his death. It really freaked me out, and I came back and I had this sort of different - this new perspective on life, and what to do. I think I was just, phew, I was pretty, I was feeling... I don't know what the words would be. Nihilistic. Freaked out, really, because he was my only sibling, and he died and, you know, I just started going out to these clubs every night. I mean, I was like 22, and I was running around the city and getting unemployment, so It was kind of a freedom.
PSF: So how did you meet James? Just from being out, from the same scene? Mutual friends?
PP: Yeah, hanging out at CBGB. I'd show up to see those bands, any of those bands. It would be on any given night... The Dead Boys, Blondie, Talking Heads. And then there would be Mars and DNA and those kind of bands, so it was just kind of across the board. One scene kind of jelling into the next. But anyway yes, James was hanging out at CB's, and we would see each other. Literally, he came up to me and said something like,"Hi, yeah. Like your hair... do you play an instrument?"
And he said, "I'm starting a band. I was in this band with Lydia, you know." So I said, "Oh yeah, yeah. I play bass... " And I really didn't play bass at all. He said, "Well, we're having this rehearsal," and it was at Lydia's old space on Delancey Street where she was living with um - Sumner Crane from Mars.
Anyway, it doesn't matter who she was living with. We had this rehearsal, and I showed up with this bass that I think I'd borrowed from someone, and it was pretty apparent that I couldn't play but he said, "Well why don't you try guitar?"
PSF: So guitar, eh? (Laughs) Can't play bass? Play guitar!
PP: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Exactly! So I thought "Okay." No, actually, it's funny. I think they actually gave it one attempt. They sent, Reck the original bass player - there was a Japanese rhythm section, Chico was the drummer. Oh god! Reck came over, and he gave me a bass lesson at some point, but it was hopeless.
So I had seen Lydia, and Connie Burg playing - she played in Mars, and Arto [Lindsay] from DNA. And I thought I could definitely play guitar like that because it's really just, you know, making noise at the right moment. And there was also James Nares... He was the other guitar player who had some kind of toy guitar so that was you know, how it all started. Two weeks later we played the first gig at Max's and we really... I mean, I seriously hadn't been playing for more than a couple of weeks. And I remember I had borrowed a Mustang, and by the end of the gig, there were two strings left, and it was completely splattered in blood which is, you know, perfectly punk at the moment because I didn't know how to pick, and my knuckles were bloody. I mean, we were playing with intensity. No strumming skills, but that was kind of the moment.
PSF: So what kind of band leader was James? I mean, was everybody in the band similar to you? I know James had a bit of history of being something of an accomplished musician so how raw was everybody else?
PP: Well, James Nares was pretty raw, but he knew a little more guitar than I did. Definitely. The rhythm section were actually pretty good. It was two Japanese guys. Bass and drums. And then Adele [Bertei] on keyboards. She was more of a musician, but probably more of a vocalist so... I think that was his thing... Having people with instruments they didn't really know how to play. He was really kind of directing the music then, like - just play "Blah, blah, chop, chop, chop, in this moment... " Someone told me that they had a recording of the first gig and it sounded really awful. Really awful. I mean, I don't think I really want to hear it. Pretty bad. But you know, we learn and then you know, James [Naris] quit and then I think Reck, the bass player, went back to Japan. Then we had Donny [Christensen] and Jody [Harris] and George Scott and they were all much more experienced musicians.
PSF: Did James have a record deal by that point?
PP: No, that took a while. We played a lot of gigs. That was that moment when we were playing Max's, and he was going out into the audience and the bands were getting lots of press. The first time we recorded was with Brian Eno when he came to New York, and we did the NO NEW YORK thing. That was our first foray into the studio, and that was really quick. I think the results were really good, but...
PSF: Did you guys ever play outside of New York?
PP: Not much. We did one gig in Chicago, and we played in Paris, and that was the end of the band. So it was really about a year and a half. And we did, in that time, make those two records, Buy The Contortions and Off White [billed as James White and the Blacks].
PSF: Was the Paris show because of the Ze Records connection?
PP: Maybe, I don't know. It's possible. I mean, I think it was getting to that point where you know, we might have, if things were more together we probably would have started touring a little, but it was an extremely dysfunctional situation.
PSF: Historically now, it's become "James Chance and The Contortions" but back then was it more "The Contortions"?
PP: It was "The Contortions."
PSF: So you guys felt more...
PP: ...like a band. Yeah. We did. We did feel like a band.
PSF: So that line up, did the band end because of the dysfunction?
PP: Oh yeah. Oh, absolutely. What happened was when James hooked up with Anya Phillips, who was a good friend of mine - I loved Anya but um, she was his manager. She became the manager of the band, and she had visions of James being this big star, and thinking that he should be separate from the band, that it was really James' thing. She kind of planted that, and the truth is James was writing most of the music, but Jody was an amazing guitar player and really, the sound of the music was created by the individuals as musicians so it was, in that respect, a band. But she kind of separated the band, and that's why when we were recording she wanted to pay the band just session fees, and it started this divide. That's when George Scott quit the band, and then they brought in Dave Hofstra, who's also an amazing player, but to re-do George's parts on some of the record... It got really messy, and in Paris it all blew up, and I was kind of the go-between between the band, and James and Anya. So they'd say "tell the boys this," you know? So (a resignation laugh) what happened, basically, is they took the money from the Paris gig and - should I say this?- they bought drugs and so the band was really pissed. So we had to decide and Anya said "stay with us," and I kinda just said, "Ah, you know, I'm gonna quit with the boys."
PSF: Was that '78?
PP: Spring of '78.
PSF: You were in some of the films of the time from that scene, right?
PSF: So you doing that probably around the same time, right?
PP: Yeah, a lot of the stuff I did with Vivienne [Dick], and the B's [Scott & Beth], was when I was in The Contortions because we were all, you know, in the East Village.
PSF: What did you think of the Blank City film?
PP: It was great. It's funny because we all told her that she [director CÚline Danhier] kind of had two films there because of the [inclusion of] Cinema of Transgression, but I understand why. I think Lydia kind of linked it all together, and I understand why from her perspective why she would think it was all connected. I think she did a great job with it.
PSF: I was really impressed. I mean, she was just a young French kid who came over and dug up all of these people.
PP: Right. It's amazing and she got them all to speak! What the hell? I mean...
PSF: And this whole time, besides the music, then making movies with your friends - you were also doing painting at the same time?
PP: I was doing photographs. You know, it's funny because I just had this show. I was doing these set ups because I didn't have studio space and I actually was showing them. Cindy Sherman gave me my first one person show at Artists Space. She was working there. That was probably '77 or '78. I think I have the card, and I was in a group show at 112 Greene, and I was in a group show in Washington D.C. called some-punk-something.
PSF: I think I know the D.C. show you might be talking about. I don't know the name off the top of my head but - there's this great website that has a whole ton of information about that show. [Most likely the Punk Art Exhibition - Washington Project For The Arts, Washington, DC, 1978]
PP: That show. Yeah.
PSF: It looked like it was incredible. Especially for the time it took place.
PP: Yeah, it was cool.
PSF: Was there any time in this period, between your brother dying, your going on unemployment, and you going through all this with the band, making films and doing some photography and all of that, did you get a day job ever in that time, or was the band covering it for a while?
PP: No. I was making enough money playing with The Contortions to kind of get by, but 'getting by' meant eating like, a slice of pizza a day sort of thing. And then whatever you could get. You know, I remember going to art openings and eating cheese and crackers a lot and stuff like that. It wasn't a lot of money but it was enough to get by. But then when The Contortions split up, and I was living with [future Bush Tetra] Laura Kennedy, she was working at Bleecker Street Cinema. So I got a job there, and we started the Bush Tetras. Then that, you know, sort of took off and -
PSF: But it was a couple of years, right? Between...when did the Bush Tetras start?
PSF: So it was that soon?
PP: It was really soon. And that was funny too because we just started sort of jamming with Dee (Pop, drummer), and then, we started jamming in the summer I think. The Contortions broke up and then we started jamming with Dee and we brought in Cynthia. We had a few different line ups, but we did our first gig at Tier 3 in February of '79. That's right. I got it right. Holy shit. And then the second gig was like, we had six songs at that point, and the second gig was opening for The Feelies at Irving Plaza, and it was just like "Phwit! What the hell? How did this happen?" It's funny. I think none of us were really expecting that.
PSF: When you guys got together, was there a plan behind the band? Any kind of forethought or was it that you just getting together? I mean, obviously the rhythms in the music you played were sort of a continuation of some of the...
PP: ...the stuff we did with James.
PSF: Yeah, and from that scene. There's a lot of that funk, you know, that kind of like rhythmic stuff going on in a lot of post punk anyway.
PSF: Who was writing the songs? Or was it a group effort?
PP: It was a group (effort). The Bush Tetras was a total democracy. We had several rehearsal spaces. For a while, we had a place we could go in from midnight to 3:00 AM with no place to pee and no heat. You know, it was great. (Laughs)
PSF: The good old days!
PP: But then we got a rehearsal space on First and First, which at that time was pretty grizzly. And actually, Cynthia was living there. It was a store front with a riot gate. We would just be in there all day long jamming. So it was really... the songs came out of like endless jams. Fueled by probably, you know, a lot of pot and beer.
PSF: And by then you had kind of, had started developing you guitar style.
PP: Style... So to speak. It's funny, with James, at that point, I had really only played slide, so I really didn't know. I don't think I could really... I knew what a bar chord was, but I didn't really use them. I was just making stuff up. I also know I learned a little bit from watching Jody, and I understood about the ninth chord. The funk chord. And I understood about James Brown and the one note sort of rhythms- I preferred that than, like, bar chords or three chord sort of songs. I was kind of into the funk stuff from James [Chance] and James Brown, and we were listening to all kinds of stuff like Bohannon... That sort of rhythmic stuff.
PP: Yeah. I used to be so insulted when people called us a punk band. "We're not a punk band!" I mean, we were some punk version of funk and we were trying to write like funk or soul songs and they came out... you know, because we didn't know what we were doing. And they actually then got labelled as dance or whatever. Dance Funk or whatever. But I think we were trying to have some sort of funkiness, and I was trying to make up chords that sounded interesting and not, you know, the straight forward.
...then I really didn't know what I was doing at all. Like, seriously.
See part II of the Pat Place interview
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