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New York music scene veteran Chandra performing in Calgary

By Troy Hasselman, June 6 2019 —

Decades after making a splash in the New York music scene of the late-’70s and early-’80s at the age of 12, art-funk wonderkid Chandra Oppenheim is back performing and will play the basement of the Palomino Smokehouse on June 19 as part of the Sled Island Music & Arts Festival.

Oppenheim is the daughter of famed conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim and began performing under the name Chandra after forming a group with Eugenie Diserio and Steve Alexander of No Wave band Model Citizens. She performed her first show at the legendary Mudd Club in 1979 to a receptive crowd and shared a rehearsal space with Madonna. Chandra released her debut EP, Transportation, in 1980. The EP is a collection of four jittery, danceable post-punk songs that recall New York-scene contemporaries like ESG and Liquid Liquid can be found in the DNA of New York dance-punk acts of the 2000s like LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture or Liars.

After the release of the EP, the first version of Chandra’s band dissolved and a new group, the Chandra Dimension, was formed in 1981, which added younger players closer to Oppenheim’s age to play in the group. This group recorded an EP that was shelved and Oppenheim put music aside to focus on her schooling.

After finishing school, Chandra worked as a real estate agent and continued to write music but didn’t perform or release her work. She began to resurface musically after the Transportation EP was reissued in 2008 and began performing live again a few years later with a group of Toronto musicians that have toured with her now for the last few years.

“There was an initial reissue in 2009 from Aaron Levin of Cantor Records in Edmonton. He did the first version of the reissue where he just did the first EP and then he unearthed the second EP that had never been released before and put that on the B-Side,” says Chandra’s drummer Jesse Locke. “A couple years later, the record had come out of print and Chandra wanted to reissue it again so she got in touch with Aaron but he was way too busy so he passed the project on to me. We did the second edition of that reissue in 2012. Around that time, Chandra wanted to start performing live again and we put together a band of musicians from Toronto. It’s been growing ever since.”

Chandra has gained strong momentum since the initial reissues came out nearly a decade ago. The band’s audience is growing further with the use of tracks in films such as Teenage, a 2013 documentary film with a soundtrack from Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox and the prominent sampling of the song “Subways” in a track of the same name by the famed Australian electronic group The Avalanches, a single off their 2016 release Wildflower.

“After the early-80s, it went into hibernation for three decades and had pockets of a cult following around the world but was very much an underground, outsider work,” Oppenheim says. “It started with Aaron Levin reissuing that record and through that I met Jesse and all of the other people in the band. The Avalanches came along and that was big. I wouldn’t say it directly increased the audience but it was part of this momentum and last year Telephone Explosion did this deluxe reissue (of the original EP’s) and things started really growing a lot from there.”

While Chandra’s story is certainly captivating, as Locke notes the story can only carry the music so far and the quality of the music is ultimately what is ultimately leading Oppenheim’s resurgence.

“New York was such an energy flash at that time from the birth of hip-hop to post-punk to no wave to filmmaking and all of these different things,” Locke says. “It was such a crazy hotbed of culture, to have her kind of in the mix of that, there’s certainly a fascination with that historical aspect. I think in anything like this, a good story can only go so far, you need to have the music to match it too. As far as I’m concerned, the Chandra EPs are just these long lost classics that stand next to anything like ESG or the B-52’s.”

In spite of the decades between when Chandra wrote and recorded the songs and their performances now, she finds that she’s mostly able to embody the songs she plays and still connect with them.

“I tend to automatically click into it when I’m onstage. I really relate to all of the songs. There’s only one song that comes to mind that I have a hard time relating — “They’re All Alike” from the brand new reissue. It’s very middle school and seems more evocative to that and less universal and less of an old soul type perspective.” She says. “I feel I was already starting to move beyond that at that time.”

Keeping with the connection to childhood in Chandra’s music, her 11-year-old daughter Issa has joined her band when her schedule permits and is set to join her mother for their Sled Island performance at the Palomino. Issa bears a strong resemblance to a younger Chandra, and according to Chandra, a strong communicator of the message and perspective of her work.

“I think that I’m already [connected to the child’s perspective of my work] so much that I don’t notice much of a difference,” Oppenheim says. “Except for the song “Tish Le Dire”, a song from the perspective of a child speaking to adults saying, ‘I have something to say, listen to me, don’t disregard or dismiss me and my ideas because of my age.’ I felt that and my daughter lives that on a daily basis. I almost feel like it’s a voice for her too like me saying that is advocating for her.”

Oppenheim credits her upbringing and the artistic background she came from with inspiring her to pursue creating music at such a young age.

“I think it had to do with the environment I was growing up in with my dad and working on his art pieces from a young age. Before I even knew I was walking I was integrated into them,” Oppenheim explains. “The very first drawing I ever made was something that he used in one of his pieces. There were other things that were actually involving me and there was a participating and we would create them so they had an element of performance since I was already doing that. My mom plays many instruments there was always some music stimulus in the house — she was really inspired by the music of the ‘60s and that’s what I grew up on. I was born in ‘68. Somehow I gravitated to music from performance, conceptual art and I don’t know why that suddenly ended up becoming my medium and once I discovered it I latched on forever.”

In spite of the momentum the project has gained in the last few years, Chandra is reluctant to record and release new material under the project name. Instead she is reworking previously written material from around the time period of the release of the Transportation EP based on demos or rehearsal tapes from the period.

“I feel that the people that are interested in this band are interested in Transportation specifically,” Oppenheim says. “If we’ve added anything it’s been demos from that era or things we’ve gotten off rehearsal tapes so in that sense there are new things. There’s a song we play from a demo and one from a rehearsal tape from 1981 that we do live now and we’re just about to work on another one that’s from ‘82 or ‘83. In terms of new, new stuff I’m thinking of doing that and I’d still use the lyrics were written between 1980 and 1985 and I wouldn’t go beyond that, probably not with this band and the music we would do in this genre”

Chandra has been playing live more frequently at increasingly higher profile venues, having just performed at the prestigious Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain. The group is going to play shows at cities across North America in mini tours spread out over the coming months and is looking at going on a longer tour of Europe in 2020.

“After this June mini-tour we’re playing in Detroit and Cleveland in the fall and New York in December and we’ll do a WFMU session while we’re there,” Oppenheim says. “I live in Portland, Maine, so we’re going to play there. Now there are other things going on too because we met so many people at Primavera and other things may develop. Beyond that, the next thing in the works is a tour in the spring of next year in Europe”

Individual tickets are still available to Chandra’s June 19 performance at the Palomino Smokehouse. Entry can also be gained by purchasing a Sled Island festival pass or a pass for the Wednesday of the festival on the Sled Island website or at Sloth Records at 736b 17 Ave. SW and Lukes Drug Mart at 112 4 St. NE

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