DiS meets Mark Burgess from The Chameleons
As bass player, singer and songwriter in iconic post-punk outfit The Chameleons, Mark Burgess can lay claim to having influenced a multitude of artists worldwide. Previously cited by the likes of Interpol, Editors and The National, The Chameleons might not have enjoyed the same levels of commercial success as some of their peers but the band's legacy lives on.
Having formed in 1981 only to split in 1987 before briefly reforming in 2000, the Mancunian four-piece left behind a flawless back catalogue including three of the most pioneering long players of the post-punk era in Script Of The Bridge, What Does Anything Mean? Basically and Strange Times.
Soon after their initial parting of ways, Burgess formed The Sun And The Moon, releasing a well-received self-titled album in 1988. Since then, he's put out records as Mark Burgess & the Sons Of God as well as embarking on various collaborations such as Invincible (with Yves Altana) and Black Swan Lane (with Jack Sobel and John Kolbeck). Having briefly reunited The Sun And The Moon in 2008, he joined forces with original Chameleons drummer John Lever the following year, putting together Chameleons Vox. With the band's sets largely focusing on Chameleons material, the flame has been reignited somewhat. Several line-up changes later - Lever is no longer involved in the project - Chameleons Vox are about to hit the road again, touring The Chameleons seminal debut Script Of The Bridge throughout the month of May.
DiS caught up with Burgess during a break from rehearsals. Here he gives one of his most candid interviews in years, discussing band members both past and present, The Chameleons legacy, and why his former band will never reform.
DiS: What are you up to at this moment in time?**
Mark Burgess: Me and the band are rehearsing for some Script Of The Bridge performances that we're going to be playing from the end of April then throughout May. I'm also working on new material in the demo room down in the bunker here. I'm also currently negotiating on a second edition of 'View From A Hill' to come out and there's also a possibility of a kindle version to go along with it. We're just proofreading that at the minute.
DiS: Very busy by the sounds of it then?!
Mark Burgess: Yeah, very busy.
DiS: Whereabouts are you based these days?
Mark Burgess: For the last few years I've been based back in Manchester. I do float around a lot though. I spend a lot of time in the States as well when we're not busy. I just got back a couple of weeks ago. I'd been out there since Christmas. The rest of the time when I'm working I tend to be in Manchester.
DiS: Do you see any parallels between the current Manchester music scene to when you first started out with The Chameleons?
Mark Burgess: I don't think it's changed in terms of the amount of creativity and talent that's around. I just think it's changed in the way that talent is received. I haven't been out for a while in Manchester, but I went through a phase of going out not so long back. There's this band I saw opening for New Order called The Evil Poor and they blew me away, so I went to see them again in Manchester and it was only a fiver for a ticket yet the room was just half full. In my day you'd go and see a local band of that calibre and pedigree playing a similar sized venue and it would be rammed. I've tended to find that a lot of students come to Manchester purely because of the musical heritage; it's become a very desirable place to live; and they all sit around and talk about that stuff but when it comes to supporting new or local music at ground level they generally don't want to know. I understand that it's more expensive to go out and watch live music these days than when I was a teenager. I used to go out and see three or four bands a week and I was earning a pittance. But in certain situations where they're trying to subsidise and counter that it's not being supported and it pisses me off to hear kids rattling on about Manchester music when they won't go out and support the local scene themselves.
DiS: What do you think is responsible for creating that difference?
Mark Burgess: Firstly, it's tougher for smaller venues to operate in central Manchester. Their overheads must be huge. In my day, a lot of places would charge very little to get in on the door so the band would take all of the ticket money and the proprietor would have the bar takings. Because ticket prices were so cheap it was a win-win situation all round. Venues were full and punters were drinking lots of the proprietor's beer. These days, the beer's too expensive and a lot of the time so are the ticket prices. Even on some of the bigger arena sized events, £70-100 to see an act is ridiculous.
DiS: Do you think the number of middlemen being involved such as booking agents and tour managers has been a contributory factor in rising ticket prices?
Mark Burgess: It could be but I generally think it's because of the economic climate we live in making the overheads so huge they really have no choice. You're right in saying that all these other people such as agents, managers and road crew need their cut, but the bulk of the cost is purely a result of actually making the show happen. It's hitting bands that are not big more because they're trying to put tours together yet the cost of hiring a van, filling it with diesel and then driving up and down the country is more expensive than it's ever been. And that's before you even think about touring overseas. And then they're also expected to make a living out of it. If you're super big it can be done, but when you're at that intermediate stage still trying to find your audience it's really difficult. So bands in general suffer because the only way they'll get better is by playing more shows. Even if they're rehearsing regularly it doesn't count. They need to play in front of people to get better. That's always been the case. Any band can rehearse together 24/7 every week but they'll only show real signs of improvement by playing in front of 30,40,50 people. That's when you really start to become a band.
DiS: It's a catch 22 scenario for new bands as their best opportunity to earn any money comes from playing live, yet if they can't afford to go out and play it hampers their long term recording prospects as a result.
Mark Burgess: Absolutely. For a lot of bands that is their main source of income when they're touring.
DiS: Would a band like The Chameleons have found it more difficult - struggled even - to break through in the current climate than in the early 1980s?
Mark Burgess: Definitely, without question. Where can you go now for national coverage in the media that are giving you at least four new bands every week? We had John Peel. What have they got? I know there are still BBC sessions. I know there are still people doing it, but not to that scale. John Peel would quite often have two brand new bands per night in session.
DiS: A lot of young musicians and artists nowadays are probably unaware just how influential John Peel was back then.
Mark Burgess: I know, but at least he has left a legacy. A lot of bands that came through the Peel shows and eventually had their sessions released, he's become a myth of those bands' very existence. People like The Cure for instance. They're still attracting fresh audiences so people will go back into their catalogues and realise just how good those Peel sessions really were. I apply that to The Chameleons as well. We've done versions of songs that are on our records for John Peel that I much prefer to the produced versions we did much later on. From that point of view they'll probably get it, but in terms of the overall exposure to new music through someone like John Peel that's totally lost. He used to attract a huge audience so once you were on the show you had a good chance of making it. Nowadays they have the Internet but it's such a huge jungle the chances are more good stuff gets lost than discovered. There's so many people doing the same thing that it makes finding your audience that much more difficult. You can put as much music as you like on the Internet but if nobody's bothering to check it out what's the point? That's why it's so much tougher now for bands than it was when we started. And we thought it was hard enough back then! We had sixties and seventies musos telling us what we had to go out and do. They were always telling us to go out and play gigs and we just thought what's the point of doing that? We thought nothing would really happen that way so we decided to focus on writing songs instead. Focus on writing the music rather than playing in pubs to empty rooms or people that don't really give a shit. We'll push the music, push the songwriting. And we did that, which managed to catch John Peel's attention and he eventually put us on. But at the time, everyone was telling us that was the wrong way to do it. However, the flip side of that is we then found ourselves on CBS and we're opening for someone like Altered Images in front of 2000 people and we haven't got a clue what to do! So then we had to learn on the sly how to play live, because all the rehearsing in the world doesn't prepare you for that. We were comfortable in the rehearsal room but when it came to standing in front of people with their arms folded going blow my socks off, that's when the nerves and adrenalin start to kick in. That's when the pressure's on but then that's also what makes you better by experiencing that. Having as many different experiences as a group is what binds you together.
DiS: Because it's so difficult to get signed now, more and more bands have taken to releasing their own music which in turn has seen an increase in independent DIY labels appearing.
Mark Burgess: And I take my hat off to that. The true ethos of punk. I spent a lot of time in San Francisco's underground music scene and one thing that caught my attention was how kids were more interested in buying vinyl off the merchandise stands than CDs. Vinyl LPs were selling out almost immediately. No one was bothered about the CDs. So it comes back to that idea of people wanting to own a record. People think a record is actually worth paying for, whereas a lot don't think a CD is. People know they can download it for free, not to mention the excessive price tag considering they cost next to nothing to make. That did feel like Manchester circa 1978 or '79, but that's exactly what was going on then. People were literally making their own records, distributing them and selling them at gigs. So to see it all happening again was just great.
DiS: The Chameleons were also very prolific in that released a lot of music over a short period of time. What's also worth noting is how your sound developed considerably with every subsequent record. Compare that to nowadays where it seems some bands are almost afraid to put out new music at times. Did you consciously set out to evolve as quickly as possible, both musically and from a songwriting point of view?
Mark Burgess: We tried to. There was nothing contrived about us when we got together to make music. We never knew what was going to happen. For example, you could get something like 'In Shreds', which really excited us at the time, but then everyone suddenly expected us to come up with another ten versions of that. So when 'As High As You Can Go' came out, which is completely different, it threw everybody. People couldn't understand what we were trying to do. And I can relate to that as a consumer because I bought 'Hand In Glove' by The Smiths as soon as I heard it. It's such a great single, but then what came next? 'This Charming Man', and at the time everyone was puzzled. Not because it's a bad song. It isn't, it's great, but a lot of artists get judged by the first song they put out, so there's then this perception that everything they do afterwards will be the same as that. The Chameleons were never like that because we had no idea what we were going to do next. Obviously there was a guitar sound. Dave (Fielding, guitar) had a sound. Reg (Smithies, guitar) had a style. I ha a style. The drums had a style in keeping with a lot of the stuff John (Lever, drums) was into. However, in terms of what we actually produced with that sound was varied. There was nothing typical about it. The only reason why the second album sounds remotely like the first one is because a lot of the songs which ended up on it were written around the same time but didn't end up on Script Of The Bridge for one reason or another. I think there's only two or three brand new ideas on the second album. The rest were all done around the same time as Script.... Songs like 'Looking Inwardly' and 'Singing Rule Britannia' especially we'd been playing for such a long time. That's why the third album Strange Times seems such a big departure because it was all started afresh. We were writing things like 'Seriocity' and 'Caution' which were a completely different style to us, and I think that's why that album ended up mostly in that vein.
DiS: You were always very difficult to pigeonhole which is perhaps one of the reasons your music hasn't dated. It's interesting reading some of the descriptions given to The Chameleons; first wave goths, post-punk and prototype shoegaze being three that spring to mind.
Mark Burgess: We never fitted in. And as for being called goths. A lot of our songs people associate with that scene such as 'Second Skin', goth didn't even exist when that song came out. Goth did not exist. You had the Banshees who were the Banshees and you had the Birthday Party who were the Birthday Party but there was no umbrella. We were definitely post-punk. I was the one most into punk out of all of us. Dave and Reg weren't really into that much. Their heritage lay in bands like The Who and lots of other seventies stuff. In fact, Dave really liked Joni Mitchell and Mike Oldfield. I remember him being the first person that ever played me Tubular Bells. John was big on Peter Gabriel and Genesis. That was more his thing. I initially came through glam rock into punk. It was punk that got me off my arse and made me want to play. Dave and Reg had already been playing for 3,4, maybe even 5 years before they asked me to join. I'd been playing about 6 months. We all brought different shapes and ideas to the mix. It was never about having people in the band who had to like a certain genre or group of bands. You put four people with the same influences in the same band and what's it going to sound like? Dreary. But we were all school friends who'd grown up together. Me, Dave and Reg particularly. John's from a different part of town and he came along later. What bonded us together was we'd all known each other since we were about eight years old, but also we all brought something different to what we were already doing. And I think that's why people have problems trying to pigeonhole us into any one thing.
DiS: Script Of The Bridge has been cited by many bands as a major influence on their careers. Interpol, The National, Editors and Diiv being four that spring to mind.
Mark Burgess: And Moby as well. Moby gave an interview in the NME a few years ago where he stated being a confirmed bachelor, so the next qustion asked what would a woman have to be for you to consider marrying her. An he replied Script Of The Bridge would have to be her favourite album of all time! Now if you compare Moby with those names you've just mentioned plus several others you can see the diversity among those people who've cited that album as being an influence. Even when I talk to people at our shows the majority of them tell me they play, so maybe we were more of a musician's band?
DiS: You created a very unique sound with two lead guitars and the whole layering technique, almost to the point where the second guitar acted as a bass in some ways.
Mark Burgess: That's certainly very true. For myself that was probably more true in the punk band I formed initially because I only had one guitar player and all he could play were bar chords. So I had to fill in on the bass. But when it came to Dave and Reg I couldn't do that because they were accomplished already, so there wasn't that space. The sort of things they were playing, someone had to anchor the root because neither wanted to play out and out rhythm. The root is what the melodies are based on, so the bass became an anchor for the root of the arrangement allowing Dave and Reg to do anything they wanted around those roots. So the sound became very interesting because they had complete freedom. No one had to hold the root because I was doing it. And because I was singing at the same time it helped me as I didn't have to be accomplished in what I was doing. All I needed to do was give it the feel and the sound in with the drums and anchor the root of the music. It wasn't just that though. All of us were involved in the arranging of the music and I had a flair for arrangement. I was quite happy to do that because the intricacies of the music; and especially in what Reg was doing. He'd come up with unusual riffs and patterns where I'd immediately spot the root, which would even surprise him as he didn't hear the root.
DiS: Were there any songs off Script Of The Bridge that proved difficult to revisit? Daunting even?
Mark Burgess: Not off Script Of The Bridge, no. Because all of them had just been us four in a room working them out. We'd also been playing them live for a long time before we decided to tour Script Of The Bridge. Some of the songs off the second record stretch us a bit. For example, 'P.S. Goodbye' is very untypical of anything we've ever done as a band. We wrote it in the studio, put it together in the studio and basically did it one piece at a time. 'Home Is Where The Heart Is' as well, we'd never played before. So if we were to tour the second album we'd have to think about it a lot more. It wasn't as organic as Script... was. And Strange Times is the same. 'Seriocity' and 'I'll Remember' for instance were quite problematic at the time. We used to just play the ones that were easy to arrange and ignore the ones that weren't. Script Of The Bridge is probably the least problematic from that point of view.
DiS: Who's in the current line-up of Chameleons Vox?
Mark Burgess: Currently it's myself, Neil Dwerryhouse on guitar who I worked with in the Sons Of God some years back. Chris Oliver also plays guitar and now we've got Yves Altana playing drums. He's a long time collaborator of mine. Yves is with us because we've mysteriously lost John (Lever), so at the moment I'm the only original member of The Chameleons playing in the current line-up. Why we've lost John is a mystery. We don't know.
DiS: I saw your show at Nottingham Rescue Rooms in December and noticed John wasn't playing drums that night.
Mark Burgess: That would have been easier to explain because John did suffer an injury last year. He didn't know how serious it was going to be but there was talk of him having to see a specialist and possibly have surgery and we knew there was a tour coming up. We were concerned whether he'd be able to do it and when he came in to assess the situation it was hopeless. Fortunately, Yves was on the periphery anyway. He was producing the new record and co-writing some of it so he asked if he could do the tour, which meant we wouldn't have to get another drummer in. He initially filled in for John in Lisbon; John actually came out with him to offer moral support although he couldn't play and everything was fine. Because he couldn't play, we were still unsure about whether to cancel the tour but Yves then agreed to fill in until John was able to come back. When we put that to John he was fine with it. We had a gig in Paris and had planned to sit down with John when we got back, find out how he was getting on and hopefully have him back playing for the Manchester Ritz show. We didn't know how bad the injury was. But somewhere in the middle of all that mix something happened. When we got back from Paris we started reading all over the Internet that we'd fired him. We were still trying to work out what happened because as far as we were concerned he was still in the group. No one had fired him or anything, so it's all a bit of a mystery at the moment. But as it stands, it's the line-up that toured in December.
DiS: How would you compare the musicians you're playing with now against those you've previously played with?
Mark Burgess: In terms of playing Chameleons music? I enjoy it now a lot more than I ever did. I think it's probably the best line-up from my point of view as a performer. The amount of passion these guys have got for this music is equal to that of those who pay to see it. That's why they want to play it, because they were all influenced by it in certain ways. So to be actually performing these songs with members of the original group is a dream. And that passion, focus and commitment is something we never really had first time around. Or even the second time around. As a performer playing live, I'm really enjoying it because I'm not carrying the whole thing any more. There's a lot of energy on stage which wasn't present before, so from my point of view I'm having the time of my life. That's the reason I'm doing it. I've gone through phases where I haven't wanted to play this stuff. There've been times where I've just wanted to do something different for a bit. But then you can never say never either. Sometimes, you reach that saturation point where it's no longer a buzz, but that hasn't happened yet to me with this line-up. I can carry writing new material, carry on making a new record, but also carry on playing these shows as well.
DiS: It's interesting hearing you say that as I saw your set at Primavera Sound in Barcelona two years ago and you seemed to be having the time of your life. Did that get your appetite back for playing live?
Mark Burgess: Not really. I did enjoy that day but I'm not a great fan of festivals to be honest. From a performing point of view I'd much rather play in a proper gig venue like the Ritz. Or even smaller. We played a Script Of The Bridge show a couple of years ago to 100 people in a punk club in New York, and those at the front were pretty much nose-to-nose with us. They were climbing up the walls at the side. It seemed they'd somehow got 150 people into a space for 100. It was totally rammed. I enjoy all different kinds of stages but festivals I don't tend to enjoy as much. It's all very rushed, very frantic. Getting people off on time, getting people on on time. Everyone's running around while you're sat waiting for hours. I don't enjoy that experience and I don't enjoy massive moats between me and the audience. I feel as if I can't connect. I like to be closer to the people that I'm playing to. I did enjoy Primavera, although that was a very different thing again. The band's development at that time wasn't about replicating The Chameleons sound. I wouldn't have gone out to do a Script Of The Bridge performance with that line-up. The spirit of what we're doing, what those people could bring to the songs was the whole point of that. What was fresh to me was not having to worry about keeping the band tight. All I had to do was sing, and their job was to get me to a level where I could perform those songs vocally with the intensity they needed. That shifted when I decided to go back on bass. I went out to San Francisco and played bass on somebody else's sessions. From that I started getting the hunger back to play. So then I needed to go back on bass, and right away it made a massive difference. It felt like we'd really taken a step forward. From our point of view, Chameleons Vox isn't really a band anyway. It's more like a cooperative of people who love The Chameleons music. It's not a band in the traditional sense. People have come and gone and are still around and still support us. Most of the people in this band have other things going on. It's not like a set line-up. There's been a whole lot of people come into this temporarily and helped us move on that aren't necessarily connected right now. I didn't want it to be a set band.
DiS: You also announced during that set there would be a new album out in 2013. You've since released the M + D = 1(8) EP and 'Time Enough' single with Periscope for Save The Children. Is the album near completion?
Mark Burgess: Initially I had a whole load of ideas for a new album that I pretty much ended up binning. Some of them ended up on the EP. But on the whole, they weren't really doing it for me. I couldn't feel anything fresh about it. I work better when I collaborate with people. For example 'Sycophants' was co-written with Chris (Oliver). And then I started collaborating with Yves (Altana) and we've got the makings of something really special. The reason why it didn't happen last year was because we did have a lot of problems that held us back. I can't really go into that without it looking like I'm putting blame on other people, which I don't want to do. I'm as much responsible for it not happening as anybody else. Ultimately, I think that will turn out to be a positive thing because in the meantime we carried on writing. And what we're doing now is far more interesting than what we were doing then. So I think we'll have a better record for it in the long run.
DiS: Would you ever consider working with former Chameleons Dave Fielding and Reg Smithies again?
Mark Burgess: No. I don't have anything to do with Dave any more. There's nothing positive in that relationship at all. I don't bare him any ill will or anything. It's just that our relationship is toxic. And I'm as responsible for that as he is. Reg I do see regularly. Me and him are fine. And up until last October me and John (Lever) were fine too. We're all still trying to work out what happened there. I wanted him back on drums for that Ritz show. I was even talking to the guy who played drums on the EP - John didn't play on that as he wasn't fit enough at the time - about him setting his drum kit up alongside John's as well, so he could do the new stuff while John would only need to focus on Script Of The Bridge. So I was expecting John to be back for the Ritz. I only found out what happened when the whole thing went public. We've tried to sit down with him but he won't talk to us. All I know is John did one and none of us know what happened or why.
DiS: You've already mentioned The Evil Poor as being one of your favourite new bands. Are there any others who've grabbed your attention in recent years?
Mark Burgess: I know I keep mentioning The Evil Poor, but as live performances go they're the best thing I've heard come out of Manchester in a long time. When I was in San Francisco there was a band there called Blasted Canyons who blew me away. They were just really original but then unfortunately they just imploded after South By Southwest last year. That seems to be the case with me whenever I get into a new band from the underground. They just stop! Efterklang are another band I love who've just announced they're jacking it in. So I don't want to mention too many names as it feels like I'm giving them the kiss of death! Obviously I love Editors and Radiohead. They're just stalwarts. I do listen to a lot of underground music and the scene in San Francisco when I was there was really reminiscent of Manchester in the late 1970s. I'd even go as far as saying it's the most exciting place I've been to musically in years.
DiS: You're playing the Classic Indie All Dayer at Manchester Academy in May with The Wedding Present, Ned's Atomic Dustbin and many others. Which other bands on the line-up are you looking forward to seeing?
Mark Burgess: The Wedding Present. I went to school with David Gedge. I bought all those early twelve inch singles and George Best. I'm really looking forward to it. We're trying to produce something here as well. It's not just going to be four guys up there ploughing through the songs. We actually are trying to present a show that's themed musically and visually around Script Of The Bridge in as much of an interesting way as we possibly can. It's not just a question of turning up, playing the songs and going home.
DiS: What have you got planned for the visuals?
Mark Burgess: I don't want to say. I don't want to spoil it. We're still producing it at the minute, throwing ideas around. We are trying to do something which evokes that record in terms of what you see and hear. Fingers crossed we can pull it all off. We haven't seen all the rooms we're playing on this tour so that could also be a factor in whether we can do the visuals at every show. We'll just try and adapt it as we go.
DiS: The Chameleons attracted a very partisan fanbase back in the day, particularly the "away crew" that followed the band on tour and in some cases went to every single gig. Do you think their involvement was a major factor in you and the band attaining such a cult status?
Mark Burgess: I don't really know. To me that's bittersweet. It's about the music and the band so keep it in perspective. Some of those people are obsessed beyond sanity really. It's like a religion or something. They're that fanatical about it. And that freaks me out. I appreciate that music can profoundly change people's lives. I've had music profoundly shape me over the course of my life but I've not made a religion out of it. Sometimes you just don't know what to say. I've had people in front of me in tears because the music has meant so much to them. The emotion of it. They're just standing in front of me crying and sobbing and I don't know what to do in that kind of situation. I don't feel worthy of that kind of attention. They have this idea of you that's not based on reality. And that disturbs me. I don't think that kind of adulation is healthy. And I'm not just talking about me personally, I'm talking about the way all four members are perceived. None of us could ever live up to that level of adoration. It's great to be appreciated, but my philosophy is simple. If you like it buy a record, come to a show, support the band. I'm happy with that. It disturbs me that I'm in a situation where I don't know what to do. I don't know what to say to these people.
DiS: It's the same with people who run Internet forums. It almost becomes a personal crusade targeting band members and journalists too who don't fall in line with their blinkered viewpoint.
Mark Burgess: I've had criticism on forums for playing these songs with people that weren't around when they written, and I have no guilt for that whatsoever. At the end of the day, the people that were in this band and aren't playing this music are people that didn't want to. Because if they wanted to they would be.
Chameleons Vox are touring the UK in May and can be seen at the following:-
15 London The Garage
16 Brighton Concorde 2
17 Tunbridge Wells Forum
18 Leicester Academy
19 Reading Sub 89
20 Cardiff The Globe
21 Leamington Spa The Assembly
22 Newcastle Academy
23 York The Duchess
24 Manchester Academy (Classic Indie All Dayer w/ The Wedding Present + more)
25 Leeds Brudenell
26 Hull Fruit
27 Glasgow Broadcast
For more information on the band visit their official website.