by Brian Hieggelke
Imagine an ambitious and creative young man growing up in the suburbs, well within the shadow of Chicago’s dynamic house music scene, listening to the boompty-boomps banging out of the radio, and setting out single-mindedly to master that music form, and then redefine it. It’s a great story. But it is not James Curd’s story. He’s just skating along, having fun and serendipitously expanding the lexicon of dance music as he goes.
Curd is the creative force behind “Greens Keepers Present the Ziggy Franken Radio Show.” The debut album from the Greens Keepers, released on Derrick Carter’s London-based Classic Music label, makes for one of the most creative, offbeat takes on house music you’ll ever hear. From the Funkadelic-inspired opening cut “Upgrades” to the signature swing-house sounds of “Low and Sweet” to the just-plain-strange wailing of “Should I Sing Like This,” the record combines persistent novelty with irresistible grooves.
The strange styles make perfect sense when you hear Curd’s story, a combination of fortuity, committed “play ethic” and burgeoning talent that easily gets obscured behind the charm of this 25-year-old. As a teenager growing up in Glen Ellyn, Curd was obsessed with skateboarding, to the point that when he found out about a half pipe inside the Medusa’s teen nightclub, he had to check it out. It just so happened that Derrick Carter and Mark Farina were resident DJs at Medusa’s at the time, and before long, Curd’s “life split into skateboarding and music.” (He gave up skateboarding after a little incident involving unconsciousness and paramedics in San Francisco, adding that he still rides, but now he’s “not trying to get hurt.”) His crooked career path involved a stint at Columbia College, then a transfer to UIC when he discovered he liked physics class more than art. But his college days ended for good one day when he couldn’t find parking near campus and dropped out on the spot.
A parent’s nightmare for sure, except things were already well underway with his musical career, which started with a characteristic jolt of good fortune. Two months after he got turntables, he headed up to the “Further” rave in Wisconsin. They had big-name DJs, but would give anyone a shot when there was downtime between sets. “I went up Friday at midnight. A guy in this tent was DJing, but no one was in there. I asked him how I could get a chance to DJ, and he said ‘Take the next record, I’ve got to pee.’” I had a copy of ‘The Wanderer,’ which had just come out, and put it on. Everyone loved it and the tent filled up. I DJed for two hours. Then the guy from Further asked me to do an event in Chicago with Deee-Lite, Afrika Bambaataa, Diz, Derrick May, Derrick Carter and Mark Farina.”
Before long, the then-18-year-old had a Friday-night residency at Tunnel (now Dragon Room) alongside Diz and Gene Farris. At 19, he released his first record, in France. A few years later, he owns three small record labels, and his Greens Keeper singles and new album have made him the talk of the Old World, whose DJ-centric audiences can’t get enough of his uniquely American sound.
His lucky charm paid off personally as well. He married the SuperJane beauty DJ Colette six months ago. “Our first date was seven months ago,” he says, still basking in his good fortune. She’s a Chicagoan transplanted to L.A., making for a bit of a long-distance marriage, although Curd suggests it’s likely she’ll end up back here since he’s “not a big fan of L.A.” In any case, their shared profession and prominence means for a lot of quality time behind the decks together, and on the road doing shared gigs. Last Saturday night, they did a birthday party for Colette at SmartBar, where she set the record straight: “He lied to you. We’d been going out two months before we got married.” They look cute together, even if their performance styles are miles apart. Colette uses her beautiful voice to sing live over the beats, giving her sets an almost ethereal quality. Curd drops what sounds like a straightforward house set in the style of mentors like Carter, but he mixes it up with a sparing dose of his own singular swing cuts, not to mention his one-of-a-kind bootleg remixes of everyone from Hall & Oates to Missy Elliott.
Curd’s work with the Greens Keepers is centered around having fun in the studio as well. The group formed after childhood skateboarding pal Nick Maurer, (“we used to make fun of him because he had to go study piano and guitar”) came back from Germany where he’d been a greens keeper after a summer in which, coincidentally, Curd “had been obsessed with golf, playing five days a week.” Maurer later followed his heart back to Germany and got married. New Yorker Mark Share recently joined the group; he’s behind their recent funk turn. In fact, it won’t be surprising if the next Greens Keepers record sounds very little like the “hillbilly house” that put them on the map. Curd suffers from terminal creative wanderlust, which he ascribes to aversion to effort. “All of us are pretty bad workers. So as soon as it gets to be work, we do something else.” Like, perhaps, watching the Cubs on television.
The massive baseball fan scheduled this interview to take place after the end of a game. In fact, one of his ambitions is “to do the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley.” Does he sing? “No!” he laughs. Given his luck, he’ll probably laugh last.
“James Curd plays a record-release party for “Greens Keepers Present the Ziggy Franken Radio Show,” along with Pepe Bradock, on May 16 at Superlounge, 209 West Lake, (312)223-9232, at 10pm. No cover, but RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the list.