Transportation: An Interview with Chandra
The mythic “lost record” is a subgenre all its own, an often deflationary landscape populated by unthinkably obscure albums that never made waves in their time but see a second life when unearthed by a modern audience. While these records are more often than not hype-heavy but unremarkable, occasionally one comes along offering something so outside of the known parameters of how music should work that it couldn’t help but have been received with confusion or silence in its own era. One of the brightest examples of this is the truly amazing 1980 EP Transportation by Chandra.
I first came across this album when it was reissued in 2008 and I was working at the much-missed haven for strange sounds, NYC record store Other Music. A co-worker gave me a manic elevator pitch one bleary morning about this bonkers no-wave record I had to hear made by a ten-year-old girl. At first it sounded a little too gimmicky to really mean much, but a few spins of the record set me straight. Even if the original intention in fronting a band with this wise-beyond-her-years kid had been a marketing ploy, the end result was razor sharp mutant post-punk, dissonant and funky along the same lines of -- but completely expanding on -- the downtown scene Chandra had co-existed in, with Bush Tetras, UT, The Contortions and Lizzy Mercier Descloux.
Beyond the strength of the songs was how captivating and frightening they felt when I listened closely to the lyrics and remembered they were written and sung with unflinching command by a girl not even into her teens.
Observational but sharply critical, songs threaded through paranoid visions of overcrowded subway cars, images of falling down in confusion, suicidal impulses, and an eerie, not-quite-placeable position in the world, a feeling of always being watched or assessed. “There’s a girl named Kate and she thinks she’s really great, but she’s not,” one song began simply, before unfolding into a self-taught dissertation on the internalized misogyny that pits women against each other. There was nothing simple or childlike about Transportation.
The majority of my excitement about this record came in sharing it. I made a handful of tapes of the scant eight songs and carried them with me to parties, handing them off to anyone who seemed like they’d get the same strange, sobering energy from it that I did. In any conversation that came up about outsider music I always mentioned Chandra and only once had anyone ever heard of her or her album. K Records founder and deep record collector Calvin Johnson shrugged off my enthusiasm, saying “Oh yeah, I got that record when it came out. It’s cool.”
I dug around online for as much information as I could find on Chandra Oppenheim, who I learned grew up in New York in the late ’70s, the daughter of hip art world parents who had parties with rock bands at their loft apartment. A few of her parents’ friends started making music with her that morphed somewhat over a short time period before she returned to school and other pursuits more customary for someone her age. She remained active in music and performance, with new projects regularly springing up. They all differed from one another and never returned to the skronky roots of her early material. Close to ten years after I discovered Transportation on that slow morning at the record shop, I was amazed to hear it announced that Chandra had assembled a band and was going to be performing those songs live again, for the first time since the early 80’s. Even more amazingly, one of the few shows scheduled was happening in Montreal, where I’ve been living for the last year and a half. At the show I introduced myself and eventually arranged this interview, hoping to get even closer to understanding how this record came to be, and how someone so young could create something so cutting and brilliant that it’s still ahead of its time decades later.
Fred Thomas: You started making music at an uncommonly young age. Were you always interested in creating original music? How do you remember the beginnings of your artistic path?
Chandra Oppenheim: When I was seven, my friend and I created and performed a couple of performance art pieces, one time opening for Laurie Anderson. I remember that summer sitting on the porch of a rented beach house with my father, the two of us working on our pieces, side by side. Sometimes I would ask his advice, “peer to peer.” He was sparing with his guidance, offering only what was needed to keep me moving in my own direction. I think the songwriting grew out of the practice of writing these performance pieces. My first very first song was “Frog Legs,” a song for my friend, to cheer her up. She was being teased at school, being called...”Frog Legs,” of course. I suppose my first official lyrics, though, were about crawling around for help after jumping out of a window.
FT: You backstory is the stuff that press release writers dream about. I've heard a few different versions of how you got into playing music, ranging from just being the product of a hyper-artistic family environment to precociously telling your parents' friends that their band wouldn't be so awful if you wrote all the songs. How did you start fronting a band with adults when you were just a kid?
CO: Soon after getting started with songwriting, my father’s painter/musician friends, Eugenie Diserio and Steve Alexander, asked if I would like to start a band with them. They had formed Model Citizens and The Dance, and were looking for another project. Eugenie showed me how to improvise lyrics and melody while the band played. Once I got the hang of it, I would come into rehearsal with lyrics I had written throughout the week, at school during lunch, waiting at the doctor’s office, on the subway, whenever and wherever I had a moment during my day. I wrote about what I observed and experienced and how I felt about it.
I felt free to be completely honest, which allowed me to write about things like my own jealousy and fears and even the societal and academic pressures that can lead some kids to contemplate suicide.
Once we had worked up a set’s worth of music, we started doing shows.
FT: What was it like to be a kid experiencing a very adult-geared scene like that?
CO: Being in a band for me was a natural extension of what I had been doing since I was about two years old, when my father first had me participate in one of his pieces, “Color Application for Chandra.” It made sense to me that being a part of this process, I would go on to create my own work.
My parents did not buy into this idea that you have to be an adult to have something to say, something of value to offer. So writing songs, rehearsing, playing shows, recording, it all felt very natural.
FT: Was there a type of marketing plan or gimmick to having a band fronted by a child?
CO: There really wasn't. I never for a second felt that it was gimmick, in fact the thought never crossed my mind. We were just artists all working together, I just happened to be 10.
FT: Did you spend much time at shows that you weren't playing yourself?
CO: When I wasn’t on stage, I stayed in the cocoon of the backstage, safe and sound, then went home to bed. Other than that, I went to school, worked hard on my homework, spent time with my friends and went to bed on time (at least at my mom’s house). In this way, even though my band and our music was part of a scene, I myself, was outside of that.
FT: How did the Transportation EP initially come about?
CO: After about a year we booked a session at Unique Recording Studios in New York, which had recently opened and was considered to be a technologically innovative studio...with an 8-track recorder. I think we completed all of the tracking, including multiple bounces, in just a couple of days. I still remember that nervousness that comes with committing to a bounce.
FT: Was this mostly improvising in the studio and coming up with new song ideas on the spot?
CO: Actually, the songs were not improvised in the studio. We used some improvisation in the writing and rehearsal process, as is common in co-writing. All of the songs were well prepared before we recorded them, which made for a fun, easy going experience. Everyone, especially my mom, probably worked hard behind the scenes to create a relaxed and low pressure environment for me.
FT: Do you remember much of the recording process?
CO: There is not much I remember of our time in the studio. One thing I remember, though, is that Eugenie and Steve were impressed with how well I was able to double vocals. It was like a fun and challenging game for me, matching vocal takes. I also vaguely remember thinking it was “neato” that we could order lunch and have it delivered to the studio.
FT: Lyrically, a lot of those songs you wrote as a preteen are frighteningly astute, and heavy on paranoia, psychoanalysis and even hints of feminist underpinnings that are beyond their years to say the least. It was so many years ago, but do you remember what was going through your mind writing some of those immensely mature lyrics?
CO: One of the main reasons I think I was able to write from this “more mature” place was that I wasn’t told I couldn’t. In other words, I wasn’t conditioned to limit myself, as young people typically are. From a very young age, my ideas and my viewpoint were respected. This, combined with preteenagehood confidence and my father’s twisted, sardonic aesthetic being the air I breathed, along with my own fascination with the psychology of oppression and brainwashing, resulted in the perfect conditions for the creation of the songs on Transportation.
FT: After the release of Transportation, you put together a band of similarly-aged musicians called The Chandra Dimension that toured for a year or so.
CO: The idea with The Chandra Dimension was to carry over what the band Chandra was doing, but with mostly teenage musicians.
FT: Were these peers and friends of yours?
CO: We held auditions for bass and drums and we asked my friend, Evie, to play keyboards in the band. Two years after the release of Transportation, The Chandra Dimension recorded an EP, but we never released it. It finally saw the light of day when it was included on the first reissue of Transportation in 2008 on Cantor Records, by Aaron Levin of Weird Canada.
FT: When you played in Montreal, you performed all eight songs from the reissue and one other, unreleased song.
CO: The unreleased song we played in Montreal and again recently at The Wavelength Festival in Toronto is called “Day Without Success.” I recorded a demo of this song with Eugenie and Steve in their apartment on a 4-track cassette recorder in 1983.
FT: Were there more songs written and recorded from those early days that have yet to see release?
CO: We recorded one other song during this period called “They’re All Alike.” Both of these songs will be released in the next year or so. The only other recordings are rehearsal tapes that are too low-fi to release. However, my bandmates and I are talking about recreating these songs live. I can see us recording them eventually, as well.
FT: What circumstances led to your young musical career winding down?
CO: It was probably soon after we finished recording this EP that I found my focus going more towards school than towards the band. My memory of it is that I had to make a choice between giving school my full attention and splitting my attention between school and the band. I chose school.
I was sure I would be able to pick up where I left off with music once I finished high school and college. Well...it turns out it’s not that easy. It’s painfully obvious in hindsight.
FT: So age 10 to 14 you concentrated on Chandra and The Chandra Dimension, but what happened after you let that go to concentrate more on studies? Where did life take you after that? You mentioned to me at one point you never really stopped performing, writing, creating.
CO: It’s true, after I wrote my first song, when I was 9, the one about jumping out the window, I never stopped writing. I was in and out of bands and sometimes played solo. The dark themes with an odd or humorous twist seem to run through all of my songs, whether it’s alt rock (whatever that means), bossa nova, performance art, my Welsh singer-songwriter alter ego, Eira Lewpart, or even the songs I wrote for a baby sign language CD. It doesn’t ever turn off. I lived in New York up until 2009, then with my daughter and my mother, I moved to Portland, Maine, where I was immediately welcomed into its active and supportive music community.
FT: One of your projects, A Slightly Better Idea, seems to have been been a huge focus for you over the past decade or so. Could you explain where this not-quite band originated from? Are you working on new material with that project in tandem with the revisitation of your older material?
CO: A Slightly Better Idea had it’s beginnings in New York about 12 years ago. It started out as an improvised concept album and over the years transformed into a multimedia performance piece. It was basically performed one time, for the album release, in 2015. Its development continued until very recently, when I decided to stop working on it, in its current form. In the moment that I realized I needed to move on from this piece that was 12 years in the making and had only been performed once, it became clear to me that A Slightly Better Idea is about the process only of making art, and not at all about producing a tangible result, a product.
I am now exploring creating a scaled down, one-woman show version of the piece that illustrates this point. This turns out to be an apt metaphor for my music career or lack thereof.
Writing songs was never about making something in order to have something to show or to show off. I wrote songs to communicate something that could only be communicated in that form.
It, the process, not the result, was an integral part of my life. I wrote everyday, whether or not anyone was listening. If someone listens to something I wrote and then on top of that, receives something from it that helps them in someway, I am grateful. It is never an expectation. I guess this is the thread that runs through all of my work.
FT: Following the 2008 reissue of Transportation, did you see a spike in new fans and people curious about your music?
CO: I think Transportation has had a small cult following all along, and it does seem to be growing. The 2008 reissue on Cantor Records made the record more easily available and introduced people to the never-before-released 1982 EP. This release was an important event in the life, the new life of Transportation. Now with The Avalanches (the Australian plunderphonics group) sampling my song “Subways” in their song “Subways” on their new album, Wildflower, these songs I released in 1980 have the potential to reach a vast audience.
FT: What moved you to form a band and perform those early songs again?
CO: The current version of the Chandra band all started when two Toronto-based musicians, Julie Reich of Bile Sister and Jesse Locke, currently in several bands including Century Palm and Tough Age, requested an interview. Bile Sister was going to be doing some covers off Transportation and I offered to come up and join them. That was in 2014. Over the past few years this one time collaboration has evolved into a dedicated group of Toronto musicians who play several shows a year. We are all busy, productive artists and I don’t live in Toronto (...yet), but I venture to say that we will start performing more frequently.
FT: Are you working on new material in the same style?
CO: I am not working on any new music in this style, at this point, although, I am excited to recreate the songs from the original Chandra rehearsal tapes, with the current Chandra band.
FT: The 2008 reissue of Transportation was limited and at this point is completely sold out. Are there plans for yet another reissue of the album? If so, will it include the two demos you mentioned? Will it differ in any way from the 2008 release?
CO: In 2014 Cantor Records and Rain Boots Records did another pressing of the 2008 version of Transportation (though, without the booklet). These are nearly sold out. I am glad you asked about this, because Julie and Jesse and I worked together to make the record available again. We timed it so that we could have copies for people who came to see that very first appearance after over 30 years, when I joined Bile Sister at Double Double Land for a couple of Chandra covers. I do have a contract with a label to reissue Transportation, as well as the unreleased demos. There is no timeline yet for this reissue. The label is connected with a very mysterious band, so for now, it will have to remain mysterious.
FT: When I saw you perform in Montreal, your daughter Issa joined you in duetting on about half the songs with you. It was incredible to see her, at probably about the same age you were when you began performing, seem so comfortable and confident on stage singing these really dark and cool songs with her mom!
CO: I love performing these songs with my daughter. She is in fact 10, the same age I was when I recorded Transportation. I like the idea of having her up on stage as if to create the illusion of a time warp for the audience. At the same time, I am wary of creating a situation where she feels like she is in my shadow. I grew up that way, in my father’s shadow. I invite her to sing with us, if she wants to, but when she chooses something else, like school or friends, I wholeheartedly support that.
FT: Is she following in your footsteps and interested in making her own music?
CO: Issa has written two songs, “Little Chickadee” and “Lemon Flowers,” for an album I’m putting out this summer.She is a skilled singer. She has much better pitch than I had. I think she has writing and performing in her future. I’m thinking...stand-up comedian? At the moment though, she is leaning towards obstetrics.
FT: What's on the horizon?
CO: It seems that more music is always on the horizon. I am looking forward to playing more festivals and touring internationally with the Chandra band. Also, I have a newish label, Rain Boots Records, that is becoming more active.In July we will release World of My Dreams. This is a double album of songs written by my songwriting students (including my daughter’s songs, that I mentioned) ages five to 11. On album one, the young songwriters sing their own songs and album two features versions of each of these songs sung by local musicians, from the vibrant Portland, Maine music scene. Working with young people, as Eugenie and Steve worked with me, brings the process full circle for me.
By Fred Thomas, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
If that’s how you’re listening to music—you’re only ripping yourself off.
I am consensually working these long-ass, impossible hours to be paid in less money, but more freedom.
This independent creative life has myriad simultaneous jobs, no days off, no assurance of security and requires extreme self-discipline.