Home counties based quintet Chapterhouse were one of the leading lights of the first wave of shoegaze. Initially formed in Reading back in 1987, they went on to release a clutch of critically acclaimed EPs not to mention the excellent Whirlpool LP, these days regularly cited by many of the current noise/lo-fi/nu-gaze bands as a major inspiration behind their very existence.
Their initial foray was curtailed somewhat by the advent of Britpop, culminating in the band eventually disbanding in 1996. Last year saw them reform for an inaugural show at The Luminaire in Kilburn before co-headlining the Reverence Festival at the ICA in November, while only last month they played what looks like being their last ever UK show before heading out to Japan and North America for one final shindig, then calling it a day for good.
The current line-up actually boasts four members from their most celebrated era. Main songwriters Stephen Patman and Andrew Sherriff share vocal and guitar duties, along with fellow guitarist Simon Rowe and drummer Ashley Bates, more recently seen as a full-time member of Tunng. DiS caught up with Patman and Sherriff before their recent show at London's Scala, appropriately in a Pentonville Road eaterie called The Other Side...
DiS: How does it feel to be in demand fifteen years after the band initially split up?
Andrew: I think one positive aspect of the original shoegaze scene is that it appears to have retained a longevity that hasn't necessarily applied to other genres since then. Looking back, it was a particularly significant time in music as bands like My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth were all making arguably the best records of their career. In retrospect, its difficult not to look back on that era with fondness and realise just how good it was.
DiS: Do you feel that Chapterhouse were under-appreciated at the time?
Stephen: I think we were one of those bands that maybe got overlooked in some quarters. People that did like us seemed to end up forming bands of their own, but on a mainstream level we never got the exposure afforded to some of the other bands around at that time. At the same time, I firmly believe our music has stood the test of time. It's almost like music goes around in cycles, so people end up seeing hearing bands fifteen years later or whenever. When we started in the mid-to-late eighties we were listening to bands like The Stooges and the Velvet Underground who'd been and gone fifteen years earlier, so I guess we were the same as teenagers. Everything seems to spiral from there via word of mouth, and its from those initial sources that people discover less recognised bands and so on.
DiS: It must be quite a distinction to have so many new artists cite you as an influence.
Stephen: When we started the band our aim wasn't about commercial success. We just wanted to make music that would have some kind of validity in years to come in much the same way as the Velvet Underground for example. They hardly sold any records while they were around but their impact helped create so many new genres of music in the future. That was the kind of legacy we always dreamt of leaving behind rather than have the odd hit single.
DiS: You co-headlined the Reverence Festival at the ICA last year - only your second show in thirteen years - yet as a member of the audience that night it almost felt like you'd never been away. Had you continued working together in various ways during the interim period?
Stephen: No, apart from the warm-up show three days earlier at The Luminaire!
Andrew: One of the caveats we had to do these shows was more about just getting together and rehearsing to see if we still had the enthusiasm to play music as a band.
Stephen: That was what the most pleasantly surprising aspect. It actually felt as good as it did back in 1987 when we first kicked off as a band. We all enjoyed playing together again and decided to play some shows on the back of that.
DiS: It felt like a religious experience in places. There were grown men crying after the first few bars of songs like 'Pearl' and then there was just general euphoria from younger members of the audience who were probably seeing the band live for the first time.
Andrew: I think that's a valid point, plus I always thought we were a much better live band than we ever captured on any of our recordings.
Stephen: Even though we hadn't played together for thirteen years, we all continued to work as musicians and producers in various projects and guises so we've actually improved as individuals. It also helps that we can reflect on our back catalogue and cherry pick the songs we want to play, and in some cases re-address certain songs to sound the way they should have done first time round. We got a bit wrapped up in production stuff and had pressure from our record label at the time to try and adopt a more commercial sound, particularly on Blood Music. A lot of the songs on that album didn't end up sounding how we wanted them to so we've used the live shows as an opportunity to play them how we'd initially intended them to work.
Andrew: We've actually incorporated songs into the current set that we never played live first time around. 'Greater Power' for example is one off Blood Music which we've approached as if it was recorded off the first album. I think it has more in common with the likes of 'Breather' off Whirlpool than anything off the second album.
Stephen: For us it's quite a vibrant and energetic song rather than the stagnant version that ended up on the record. Because we recorded Blood Music with so many different producers in numerous studios we never really got that energy we had with Whirlpool, so now we have a chance to finally do some of those songs justice.
DiS: The whole performance from the set you played down to the visual aspects seemed so current, which again has to be considered something of an achievement bearing in mind the lengthy hiatus.
Andrew: Part of the sound that we had was all about atmosphere, melody and sonic complexity. Those sounds have always been around right from when Brian Eno was doing them back in the 1970s and as much as we might not have been that easy to grasp compared to say, grunge or Britpop, our music doesn't age as much either.
Stephen: We're all music fans from different eras so it was never going to be the case where we'd just create music of one particular genre. It wasn't deliberate - I mean, we didn't know how people would react to our music after fifteen months let alone fifteen years, but I think if you try to implement new ideas and sounds into what you're doing it helps things stay fresh.
DiS: Do you think the retrogressive styles and sounds of Britpop had a detrimental effect on bands such as yourselves who were ambitious and genuinely trying to push musical boundaries at the time?
Stephen: Yeah, but that's just the nature of pop music. You can't really influence the sway of public opinion or the reason why the charts are full of certain types of music, because that's what most people want to hear. However, there's always a core group of people within every generation seeking to find something different.
Andrew: Back then there was quite a voracious appetite for the next big thing, more than there is now I'd say, so once something had been going for a year people got fed up with it. A lot of that seemed to be journalist led and there appeared to be this unhealthy competition between various sections of the music press to be first with the next big thing and then once it had been discovered they'd get bored and move onto something else.
Stephen: It's quite ironic that with most of those scenes it's always the bandwagon jumpers that seem to benefit more than the bands that actually start the ball rolling. With the grunge scene it was people like Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam that were selling ridiculous amounts of albums not the true innovators like Mudhoney or Tad or Screaming Trees.
DiS: At the time shoegaze was used as a derogatory term to describe bands like Chapterhouse, yet in the current context its actually quite an acceptable, almost cool musical genre. Why do you think people's perceptions have changed?
Stephen: I think it's probably just time. When you look over to America at what bands are considered to be shoegaze I'm actually quite astounded at some of the names that get included. I mean, none of the bands probably set out to be called "shoegaze" initially so from that aspect its almost like a genre that's taken on a life of its own. I'm even surprised when I see bands like Swervedriver labelled as "shoegaze". I can only summise they're included by association either logistically or with the record label they were signed to. I wouldn't necessarily class them as straight-down-the-middle rock but at the same time find it difficult to understand how people can interpret them as being similar to bands like us or Slowdive for example.
DiS: What stands out as a particular highlight of your career?
Andrew: For me it would have to be the first time we played the Town & Country Club here in London. I'd seen so many good bands there right from being a teenager then to sell it out with two-and-a-half thousand people squeezed in was something else.
Stephen: That was the venue we'd all come up from Reading every weekend to see our favourite bands in, and we always assumed to headline there meant you'd made it as a band.
DiS: A lot of people talk about the 1991 Slough Festival as being the definitive moment for the first wave of shoegaze, even the bands that weren't on the bill. What are your recollections of that day?
Stephen: My recollections are quite vague actually. Did we play it? We did? Oh right, I remember being there but don't remember an awful lot about our set to be honest!
Andrew: All of the bands on that bill came along at different points in time, and we were a bit older than most of the others, possibly even the oldest band on the line-up bar maybe The Mock Turtles.
Stephen: Slowdive and Ride both got signed before we did even though we'd been together a lot longer than them. I guess Slough was the point where all of the bands from that scene came together and people took notice.
Andrew: I do think our sound was a lot different to theirs, more 60s psyche influenced and grungier. Looking back, a lot of our stuff doesn't really fall into that shoegaze bracket and I think that's one of the reasons why we've never been fully accepted by certain people within that whole scene.
Stephen: Ride and Slowdive had a very distinctive but also quite unified sound whereas we were quite diverse with pretty much every record. We had different songwriters in the band so it was never just a case of the same one or two people having the final say all the time.
DiS: I guess one example would be 'Falling Down', the lead track off the 'Freefall EP' which at the time I recall was described in some quarters as "the southern answer to Manchester" courtesy of the 'Funky Drummer'-style backbeat on the track.
Stephen: Even when we play that song now we've all made the comment about it being a bit baggy!
Andrew: To be honest though we've always played around with synthesised sounds and drumbeats. We've always tried to challenge ourselves and approach things differently and although we have a lot of the attributes associated with the whole shoegaze scene, I think we've proved over the course of every release that we were never afraid of or averse to change either.
DiS: I can hear the differences even on the recordings of tracks like 'Falling Down' and 'Something More' on the EPs compared to the re-recorded ones that ended up on Whirlpool. Which do you prefer and why?
Stephen: I prefer the original version of 'Something More' because it sounds like us. I like what Robin Guthrie did with it for Whirlpool but in hindsight I think it would have worked better on an EP whereas the single version flows with the rest of the album. As soon as we got signed a lot of the decisions about what tracks would be included on certain records and whether they should be re-recorded or not were left to the label. It was only after we released Whirlpool that they gave us more freedom; the b-sides of 'Pearl' and 'Mesmerise' for example were a perfect opportunity to go off and do exactly what we wanted. There was no pressure whatsoever, and we could just experiment and do whatever we pleased. Those five songs are really at the core of what we wanted to do, and in hindsight, possibly are what we'd consider the definitive sound of Chapterhouse.
DiS: Going back to Blood Music, do you feel that the label put too much pressure on you to make a stereotypical Britpop album rather than just a Chapterhouse record?
Andrew: I think they had plans for us to take a more commercially viable direction for sure, probably off the back of 'Pearl'. It's quite weird looking back because that was the last song we wrote and recorded for Whirlpool, and because it had a dancier element to it than the rest of that album it became a focus for Dedicated at the time to try and persuade us to "write another 'Pearl' and then it became "write a whole album's worth of 'Pearl'" and so on. After that they were less encouraging about the more experimental guitar-based stuff and we got sidetracked making the second album by trying to answer their commercial needs, and the rest is history.
Stephen: With any band, unless they're given absolute freedom it tends not to work. There were other things going on in the music industry at that point which our label somehow expected us to compete with, yet which ultimately wasn't what we were about. It was their fault for signing a band that didn't fit their paradigm so they had to try and push a square peg into a round hole to make us fit in with their perspective.
DiS: If you could record Blood Music again what would you change?
Stephen: Seriously? I'd change something with every single song on that record. For starters I'd take out almost all the electronic sounds and play most of the songs live. Another thing which didn't help the making of Blood Music was Ashley (Bates, drummer) leaving the band halfway through the recording process so we had to get another drummer in short term to finish it off and listening back there are parts that sound forced or rushed. I think Ashley's departure removed an integral part of our sound as well and in hindsight, it was the beginning of the end for the band. When I hear a song like 'Precious One' off the Mesmerise' single produced the way it is on record its quite upsetting, as I know if we'd been allowed to make it the way we wanted it could have been so much better, and that's why we're re-doing it live now in the style it should have been done originally. There are parts of Blood Music I really like, the more experimental pieces like 'Summer's Gone' or 'Deli', but at the same time every single song had to have something added at the production stage for the sole object of commercial value.
DiS: I remember seeing a performance video for 'We Are The Beautiful' for the first time, and thinking at the time something didn't seem quite right, as even on that footage the band seemed somewhat uncomfortable.
Stephen: There's a reason why we're not playing it at any of these shows. I do quite like it as a song, but I hate the way it sounds - it reminds me of Tears For Fears or something!
Andrew: Another reason why we chose not to play it - or indeed a lot of the material from Blood Music - in the live set was due to the heavy sequencing throughout that song. We've chose to keep sequencing to a minimum live - I think we use it on two songs 'Pearl' and 'Love Forever' and that's it - even 'Falling Down' we play completely live.
DiS: How difficult was it deciding what to include and which songs to leave out of the live set this time around?
Stephen: One thing that was important this time round was that every member of the band had an equal say in what we play live. Initially when a band gets signed there's an automatic pressure on the singer or singers to become the frontperson(s) for the band, and more often than not that becomes detrimental to the group. We wanted everyone to have an input into every decision that was made, and if one person was particularly vocal about not wanting to do something then it wouldn't be included.
DiS: Are there any plans to write and record any new material in the forseeable future?
Stephen: I'd say that is highly unlikely. We never set out to re-form, it just happened. I'd honestly say that if I was to write music at this moment in time it would sound nothing like Chapterhouse!
DiS: What would it sound like?
Stephen: That's hard to say. I like representing what we did then but it isn't what I'd do now. Chapterhouse is the sound of my teenage self, whereas I'm in my forties now, and I'd like to think over the years I've developed a much broader music taste than I had back then, and as much as I think we were forward-thinking in what we did, that period only represents a small part of it.
Andrew: One of the reasons we're doing these shows is to try and make it an enjoyable experience for people who come to see us, and I don't know what you think but for me, there's nothing worse than seeing a band from years ago playing a load of new songs that no one knows or particularly wants to hear. I find that really self-indulgent when bands try to be relevant or re-invent themselves fifteen years or whatever after their sell-by date.
Stephen: I think those ATP:Don't Look Back shows have made a significant difference for bands from previous eras in that people know that they're going to get what they want, which is basically a replication of what the band or album in question were like back in the day.
DiS: Talking of ATP, the My Bloody Valentine one before Christmas featured several bands from the first wave of shoegaze. Were you approached and if not, would you play an event of this kind if asked to in the future?
Andrew: We weren't approached for the My Bloody Valentine one, but I think we'd be tempted if anyone ever did ask us. It would be quite nice to do Whirlpool as a Don't Look Back show followed by some b-sides or something. I saw the Pixies recently and they opened with a set full of b-sides then went straight into Doolittle after.
Stephen: As festivals go it's one we'd definitely be interested in doing. We played a lot of outdoor ones years ago and I don't think we ever really pulled our sound off at any. It just never seemed to work across a windy, rainy field whereas ATP would suit us as its all indoors.
DiS: You're heading off to Japan and North America this month, and by all accounts playing mostly medium to large capacity venues. Does it feel a tad surreal that there's a captive audience waiting to hear Chapterhouse on the other side of the world at this moment in time?
Stephen: The main reason for the American dates is that the last time we were due to play there we had issues regarding the release of Blood Music and had to withdraw it, and yet there was a more favourable response for the record over there so I guess a lot of people who didn't see us back then want to see us now. It feels like we have a spot of unfinished business to take care of over there so this tour seems like the perfect way to end it all on.
DiS: Finally, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
Stephen: Having a night at home watching the telly! If we get offered anything that we think is worthwhile or interesting then we will consider it but at the same time its not something we'll be pursuing either, and even then we'll only play one-off shows; there definitely won't be a full tour in the forseeable future.
Andrew: We've all got very demanding jobs and kids these days, plus Ashley's already in a touring band so maybe if we all were to get laid off its something we'd revisit, but at this present moment in time, tonight will be our last ever show in the UK.
For more information on Chapterhouse, visit their website or the excellent fan site