You know all the words to Grace Jones’s Pull Up To the Bumper and you’ve probably strutted in the club to Walking In the Rain. But have you met her brother Chris Jones?
Iconic in his own right, he is a musician and DJ making waves with his new eminently danceable album Strong2. We talk what it’s like collaborating with his sister, the storied queer nightlife of the 80’s and 90’s, and sex, sex, sex. Also get a sneak peak at an exclusive music video of the lead single Strong:
How are you doing?
I’m just back to London now from Serbia, and I’ll be heading to Jamaica on Thursday to help Grace [Jones] with her new album.
It’s gonna be Jungle Disco. It’s gonna be great.
Can you tell me more about that project?
It’s going to be produced by Ivor Guest. She’s using a lot of African musicians on it. It’s gonna be finished in the next couple of weeks. I think they’re looking at a September release. Me, I’m a backup singer. I also did background on her Hurricane album.
My music video for “Strong” is finished.
I have Vahe Sinsinian, a star from Hungary on it. It was produced by Martin Ryan, who’s very multi-talented. He also did a few mixes on the tracks as well. We did a lot of the video work in Germany, and got many ideas from Glenn Roggeman the President of AED film studios in Belgium—that’s where I learned a lot of my techniques and we did our first showing of the music video there.
I’m planning to start touring for the album in January.
Where will you be touring?
In New York, Europe, Australia. I’m also touring with Grace–I do her fashion and wardrobe. But this will be my first solo tour in a while.
Your music has a strong affiliation with dance music. What’s your relationship with club culture?
I was a DJ in Paris in the 80’s, and that’s how I started getting into the club scene. First, I was a model [in New York] with Elite Models and Wilhelmina, but then I got inspired by Frankie Knuckles. He was one of my friends. From his inspiration, I started collecting music. I worked part-time at Colony Records on Broadway. Then I just got into it, you know?
It was the time when there was LSD and soul music! And that was the trip. LSD started with the rock music and then, it hit the black music. That’s why you’ve got Barry White, you know? [laughs]
I used to DJ in New York, and I worked for the Tenth Floor in New York, Le Jardin, The Palladium. I just did a DJ party for Duran Duran in Italy. It was the period when disco was hitting. You remember DJ, Nicky Siano? He was one of my best friends. At the Tenth Floor and the Loft, the punch was spiked with LSD so you had no choice but to dance!
I’ve seen the difference with how the music started in the 80s with horns and orchestra, and big labels. But nowadays everyone wants to be famous. Immediately, they put their things on YouTube, and I think that’s not good because I think a lot of the best artists are not being recognized. In the 80’s and 90’s, it was special.
What was special?
Going out was more special because it was new sounds. Instead of pop—you had house music. To me, house had the feeling of gospel, which had real meaning. And great backup vocals.
In my music, I use orchestration, I use studio, I use live studio. Now, there’s less live feeling, more digital, more minimal. That’s the difference rave is in now. And I find most DJs nowadays are not musicians. I had classical background. I would put songs together to try to make a love story. So it all had more meaning.
How did the queer culture at the clubs impact you?
There was a lot more drag back then. It was more entertaining when you went out—you had the disco, you had drag, you had club kids. I find now that sort of ambiance is no longer there. Of course, it had an impact on me. You have different people looking like Lady Bunny. People had a different feeling about going out. They dressed up, they tried to make different images. And I think nowadays you don’t have that anymore. When you go to a club now, people are not making fantasy.
When I used to go the Garage or Danceteria, everyone was so much into the music. The sweat would fall off the roof! It was like everyone was into the same feeling–the music just totally taking you over. You were in a trance!
That inspired me to do with my music. I still have modern feeling in my music, but I also have 80’s/90’s feeling as well.
You mentioned before that house reminded you of gospel. Can you say more about that?
I grew up in church. My father was a bishop. Grace and I used to sing together in a gospel group called The Virtues. In my music now, I try to add a feeling of gospel with my backup vocals. I try to have this gospel/disco feeling. And house. Because house had this feeling of being in church.
When house music began, you would jump up and down. It would become a religion. It was like a church, but like a disco church. The feeling that made everyone so happy, that gave people inspiration, that put people in a trance, like a church. The vibrations, the feeling that came out of everyone and the music.
What’s your songwriting process like?
Sometimes I start with the chorus, and sometimes I start with the verse. I have a melody in my mind—and it’s normally a live experience I’m going for. When it’s something emotional in your life, it comes in. Like “Strong,” for example. How many times have I tried to be successful, but this never happens. But you have to keep going. So “Strong” was written because of lying record labels and the rejections. Like the moments you think you have success, but then it doesn’t happen. Someone says they’ll sign you for the world, but then you don’t get a call the next day. So “Strong” is about being strong for whatever you go through. All my music is personal.
For “No More Bees” – “no more bees, no more trees” is about what I’m seeing happen in the world. The environment—it’s little things that mean a lot. That is the problem nowadays–that people don’t realize a little bee is so important to our livelihood and to the world. So I write about things that have meanings and feelings, and things that I’ve personally experienced.
Then “The Rhythm of Love” is about sex: up and down. It’s more subtle, but that’s what it’s about.
How do you bring sex into your music?
Bringing sex into some songs is good. Sex is healthy. I would hope that people would be making love to some of the songs. If you can create a song that makes someone feels sensual or sexual, I think that’s mastering the art.
Have you ever had sex to your own music?
Yes I have—many times in fact. If I can’t have sex to my own music, I don’t think anyone else will find it sexual.
Can you tell me more about how you think about backup vocals?
For my songs, I use Ebby Drenthe, she is a pop singer. She has a gospel feeling, and she’s very sensual. I record the verses, then I add the vocals into the certain parts where I want to emphasize the sensuality. It’s all a part of it—certain words you have to emphasize, you use the background to bring out the sensuality of that particular word or that particular sentence.
When you put on a video, how do you tell a story of the music and looks? It seems like the perfect avenue for the complete package of your fashion influences and your dance music? The sensuality?
Let me send you our video and you can see for yourself! You can end your piece with my video, darling.
Thank you for your time, your grace, your stories, your inspiration.
Noa/h Fields is a nonbinary poet and teaching artist living in Chicago. Their chapbook WITH is out from Ghost City Press, and they are currently working on a book on the queer poetics of nightlife.
Great interview, inspiring and informative!
Tell him Kelsie said hello… Just saw him in the Grace doc and he looked exactly the same as he did in the late 80s…
P.S. I still have your early master tapes which I would gladly return to you… good stuff…