Interview - Mark Burgess, The Chameleons.
By: Brett Spaceman
I suppose it was inevitable, once I launched this magazine, that one day I would feature The Chameleons in some way. They remain one of my favourite bands. Athough my record collection contains many ‘great’ artists and ‘classic’ albums none are played remotely as often as The Chameleons. That band spoke to me in ways no other has. Always poignant lyrically, the songs were elevated into masterpieces when those words became framed by the beautiful, shimmering music. Sadly The Chameleons never enjoyed the same exposure as the likes of The Smiths, Simple Minds or Echo And The Bunnymen. As such their fanbase remains of the ‘small’ and ‘loyal’ variety. But if you meet one, they’ll confirm everything I’m saying. The Chameleons will probably still be their favourite band.
This interview came about largely because of our most recent ‘classic album revisited’ which was The Chameleons, Strange Times. I suppose Strange Times is a kind of favourite of mine but if you’re a newcomer, you might be advised to start elsewhere. Personally I kicked off with The Peel Sessions (Which obviously worked!) The bands dreamy debut, The Script Of The Bridge, could easily have been our ‘classic’ pick itself. Many fans even prefer the second album, What Does Anything Mean, Basically? – and this is the one I’d recommend as a start point. There are a lot of catchy tracks on here. Plus it has one of the best sleeve designs of all time. (Courtesy of guitarist, Reg Smithies.) Red Sun Records is something of a specialist shop. I’ll put a link at the bottom of the interview.
I spoke recently to Mark Burgess, singer, lyricist and bassist with The Chameleons about Strange Times, the band, the splits, the reconciliation, his book and his recent activities as ChameleonVox:
Brett Spaceman: Strange Times made it to [sic] Magazine ‘classic album’ status. Do you rate it highly yourself?
Mark Burgess : Yeah I rate the album very highly, I thought at the time that it was a classic album and the years haven’t changed that view. I think lyrically it was the work I was proudest of.
Spaceman: Do you play your own records? Do you have a favourite Chams album?
Mark Burgess : No not really, I don’t play the records but obviously I play the songs a lot, different versions with different people, I tend to have favorite songs rather than favorite tracks. Having said that I think my favorite Chameleons recording would be the first single, In Shreds/Less Than Human. Although I have a lot of love for what became the ‘Tony Fletcher’ EP too. Throughout the albums there are a lot of moments that I like with tracks and obviously the first album we did together, Script of the Bridge, will have special memories for me whenever I hear a track from it; but I seldom play them myself. Usually when I hear our recordings they’re either in a club somewhere, on a radio station, or on somebody else’s playlist.
Spaceman: As I had ST on vinyl long before I had it on CD I cannot help but think of it in terms of Side 1 and Side 2. A shade side and a sunny side, if you like. Was this deliberate? Who selected the running order?
Mark Burgess : Yeah it probably was deliberate and the running order of Strange Times, like all our records, was something we’d all debate and collaborate on, including the producer. The order of the second side wrote itself of course because quite a few of them are linked together and that was absolutely deliberate, we contrived to link them that way.
Spaceman: The ‘darker’ songs became staples of the live shows. Caution struck me as almost as cathartic as Second Skin. And I can’t remember a gig without Soul In Isolation. Are those songs fun to play? Are they tiring?
Mark Burgess : Yeah they were great to play, and very powerful to play. Caution because of the sheer power and emotion of it. We wrote and arranged it in the studio so we didn’t play it live ever until after the record was done and I can remember the first time we did it, at Darlington Arts Centre at the beginning of a national tour. We ran through it at the sound check and there were a few people standing around but we finished there was just silence until a voice at the back of the room just said “Fucin’ ‘ell” and everyone fell about laughing. Soul In Isolation is fun to do because I can improvise things in the middle part, which is something I always loved doing.
Spaceman: In those days you needed to keep a song less than 3 minutes to get radio play. Nothing on ST fits the bill really. Were Geffen on your back regarding singles?
Mark Burgess : No not at all. CBS gave us that bollocks in the beginning, you know, you can’t have six and seven minute arrangements and the producers that they sent us too concurred and told us we’d need to lose the end sections to Second Skin and View From A Hill; but Geffen, no they gave us a free hand really. Well Tom from Geffen liked to get involved with the mixing, and with ‘Tears’ there was a tendency to try and streamline the song into something mainstream. When I did that song with Reg, I’d imagined something softer, more of a ballad, which is something I eventually got to do on the album version. But I don’t recall that Geffen were arsey about arrangements in the way CBS/Epic were.
Spaceman: On the sleeve notes you thank Bob Geldof for “firing the staring pistol”. I don’t believe you started the band inspired by The Boomtown Rats and I was wondering, was Geldof Mad Jack? I’m thinking of the lyric “he walks on water and he’s always right, talks about the madness in Africa” – Live Aid etc.
Mark Burgess : No Mad Jack wasn’t any particular person, he’s a manifestation within us all, an elemental within us all that drives us to excess and clouds our sanity. He’s very strong in me and I constantly have to keep him in check. He was strong in Dave too, and a whole lot of people that were around us in the mid-80’s. Mad Jack really digs the drug culture.
The Bob Geldof reference was about the global marathon he’d organized in aid of the African famine when we were making the record, although I chose to swim a marathon rather than run one and in the end the Producer had to stop me swimming because they’d all sponsored me and I was costing them too much money HA. He jumped in the pool and wrestled me out. I just thought the way he mobilized kids all around the world into trying to do something about African famine was just great, I mean, I’d never experienced anything quite like that before in terms of communication and I felt at the time that it could really be the start of a whole new paradigm. That was naïve of me, but I wasn’t alone in that view. I remember David Bowie saying something similar after he’d played the Live Aid show.
Spaceman: What was the reception to ST – critics, label, fans?
Mark Burgess : Well the album was ignored by pretty much everyone except the New York Times, who called the album probably the most important album since The Beatles’ Revolver.
Spaceman: Strange Times was 1986. Will there be a 25th anniversary re-issue?
Mark Burgess : I’ve no idea, you’d need to ask The Chameleons’ management and Geffen Records who own the rights.
Spaceman: I see that Blue Apple have just re-issued the acoustic albums. Those were quite popular as I recall?
Mark Burgess : Yeah they did quite well. I loved doing them, especially the first one ‘Strip’. I love that album. I love the atmosphere on it, the vibe in the studio when we were recording it. They were the first recordings we’d done together in something like 13 years and it felt great and we were kind of rediscovering our own music.
Spaceman: Every article I see on Chams throws in the ‘criminally ignored’ or ‘best kept secret’ remark. I see that all the time, ‘Manchester’s best kept secret’. Is that becoming a cliché now? Or still holds relevance?
Mark Burgess : I don’t know, I mean I honestly don’t know. We had a healthy audience for what we did and now twenty odd years later young musicians and music lovers are still buying the records and coming to here me perform the material so, you know, I don’t know how secret we were. A lot of music promoters and press hacks didn’t know who we were, but they were all pretty retarded anyway to the ‘real’ underground unless it had come through them you know, like the NME or whatever. We had Peel on our side so you know, that was great and got us our audience and we just built on that whenever and wherever we could.
Spaceman: How much of the city is in your music?
Mark Burgess : Not that much really if you ask me. I mean you can hear Manchester much more in The Fall, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, Oasis. I think we could have come from anywhere. I think there’s a lot of pride with people that we DID come from North Manchester, but I don’t think there’s a lot of obvious Manchester influences in the music to be honest. Not like you’ll hear in most of the Factory bands and what not.
Spaceman: Do you think the UK mainstream music press had an agenda against The Chameleons? You had more popularity in USA and mainland Europe. Why so unfashionable in UK? Any thoughts as to why the music press were so unfair?
Mark Burgess : I’ve no idea, and I don’t give a fuck. If people, writers, whatever, like what we do and they want to encourage others to give us a listen or check out a show, well nice one, thanks a lot, glad you’re on board. If not, fuck it, there’s a lot of other good music out there, go and write about that then. I really don’t give a fuck. I never did.
Spaceman: After ST your manager Tony Fletcher sadly passed away. It is often said that Tony was the glue that kept the band together. You called him a rock of sanity. The inference is almost that the band wouldn’t have split if Tony had still been around. Is that your feeling as well?
Mark Burgess : Who can say? It’s all just speculation isn’t it. My feeling was and still is that had Tony Fletcher not died we wouldn’t have split when we did, but who the fuck really knows. Tony did die, and we couldn’t’ survive it, at least in this universe. Maybe there’s another out there where things went differently. I’ll know one day one way or the other.
Spaceman: Your book – View From A Hill sold out in Europe (but is being published again in the States, for anyone who might have missed out) – How long did that take to write and how did you find the process of writing? Was it easy to recall all those moments in your life?
Mark Burgess : I was writing it on and off for years. Yeah I enjoyed writing it, especially when it came to sitting down and pulling it all together and writing to publish, if you see what I mean. Yeah I have good recollection when it comes to events and experiences but it also helps to keep diaries, which I used to do a lot.
Spaceman: I don’t wish to dwell on this, as it is covered in some length in your book, but all the fans will want to ask about the split. What is it about your relationship with Dave Fielding that stops the two of you working together?
Mark Burgess : What stops the two of us from working together is Dave Fielding. I have no idea why.
Spaceman: Other bands, like Wire, have found a formula which allows them to work together despite any individual tensions. They write and perform when they can, put the band on hold at other times and are able to go away and do other projects in-between. Why can’t you guys do something similar?
Mark Burgess : I don’t know. That’s what I wanted to do. Continue to work when the band wasn’t busy being The Chameleons. That’s what brought things to a head. I wanted to play an acoustic tour because the band didn’t have any work, and I wanted to work. Dave thought I should just sign on the dole until the band did have some work. We had a difference of opinion about it. I suggested that we sit down and talk about it in person when we convened to play a show in Athens, Greece. He agreed, then didn’t turn up for the show. John backed him up, Reg wouldn’t go to Athens on his own, so that left myself, Kwasi Asanti and the band’s crew sitting in Athens with our dicks in the wind. We played the show anyway, I came back a week later, Dave and John had left the band. Reg distanced himself from all that, but obviously he’d had enough, so that was the end. I continued on my own and I’ve doing it ever since. I didn’t leave The Chameleons.
Spaceman: Something I think your book does well is anticipate a lot of issues that fans will have wanted answers on. You give your version and you rationalize and justify every decision you made. Was that important to you? To get your version across?
Mark Burgess : Yes. I’d been asked to talk about it so many times. And there are some really weird people out there that know nothing about it at all but spread a lot of lies and a lot of nonsense, but I want people to be aware of something. I was writing the book, in the end, for my father because he was dying. That’s the reason I pulled the book together and finished it. It was important to me that HE understood what had happened and why. That’s the reason why I can tell you that everything I put in the book is true as far as I’m concerned. Because my dad was dying and I wanted him to read it.
Spaceman: Something the book maybe does less often is put the other perspective. Dave Fielding’s reactions for example, come across as gross overreactions. Are you unable to put yourself in the others shoes? Is explaining yourself more important to you? More important even than looking for solutions?
Mark Burgess : Well that’s a difficult question to address without specifics. All I’ll say is, the things that I wrote actually happened. If the reactions were gross overreactions, then that’s what they were. He’s a very extreme person who changes like the weather, very unstable, or at least he was back then. I wasn’t writing a book about The Chameleons, I was writing a book about my life, my experiences and I tried to be as honest as I could.
Spaceman: Toward the conclusion of your book you speculate that you have a tendency to “run away” – that your whole life has been a flight towards or away from something. Have you thought much about this aspect of your character since the book?
Mark Burgess : Er, well yeah… LOL
Spaceman: I should mention that it is a very good book, mixing regular autobiography with some philosophy and spiritual beliefs. Did you have specific goals when you set out to write? Did these change as you went along?
Mark Burgess : No the only agenda I had when I was writing it was to finish up with a book I was completely happy with, that felt complete and finished as far as an autobiography CAN be finished, you know, I mean I’m not dead yet so, you know, endings can be a bit tricky. The last chapter was specifically for my father. I thought about taking it out for the second edition, cause he’s gone now and it was for him that I wrote that last chapter, but then decided to keep it in.
Spaceman: On to happier times – ten years ago, you guys were reconciled and selling out places like Shepherds Bush Empire! How do you reflect on the comeback era? Was it a success, and how to you even judge what success means?
Mark Burgess : Well they were the biggest domestic shows we’d ever done, so I kind of judge it like that really. On our last UK tour in 86 we broke the attendance record for The International in Manchester, and they had some very respectable acts going through there, but it was The Chameleons that held the house record. So to come back after 15 years or whatever, and then break the attendance record again at Manchester Academy, and sell out Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which is a very famous room in London, was very satisfying. And then to top it off, we actually got fuckin’ PAID, which was a first and very nice.
Spaceman: For me, the comeback concerts were even stronger than first time around. Did you (all) feel that way too.
Mark Burgess : I did yeah. I felt we were a far better, stronger, more powerful band the second time around. I mean there’s a lot to be said for a young dynamic, you know, you have an energy in your 20’s that’s just fuckin’ stellar when it’s channeled right and the music’s there; but I think the 21st Century Chameleons was a very good band and we were really able to put the material across in a more controlled, powerful way. I enjoyed most of that time a lot more, yeah.
Spaceman: When did you first meet Kwasi Asante? How did you decide to work together?
Mark Burgess : I must have seen him around Middleton or Manchester but the first proper meeting was at the first sound-check for the Witchwood shows, the first shows we played together on the reunion thing. And Dave invited him up to jam, and were playing One Flesh, and Kwasi did his thing, so I started dubbing the song on the bass and improvising with him, and I really enjoyed that. I asked him if he could do that every time and he laughed and said yeah. So we got him up during the show and he just stuck around. He was great to be around. A very cool and uncomplicated guy.
Spaceman: How do you regard your comeback album Why Call It Anything?
Mark Burgess : I really like the album, more now than at the time. Back then I thought maybe we’d be given the grace to learn to record with each other again, find our way, you know. Again I was being naïve. But it’s very different than anything else we did so in that vein we were consistent. But I think there are some really great tracks on that album, and some really great songs. I like the instrumental parts but they go on too long for me. I would have said that had I been there for the mixing and mastering, but I was grieving my dead sons at the time so they finished the album without me.
Spaceman: There’s a progressive side to WCIA – most notably on tracks like The Truth… and Dangerous Land. Who brought that to the table?
Mark Burgess : That was predominantly Reg and myself. John came in on the arranging of them when we were in pre-production for the record, and Dave put his parts down in the studio when we were recording the album.
Spaceman: When did the old tensions begin to resurface? Was the second split the same as the first?
Mark Burgess : No not really because the second time round I wasn’t really aware anything was happening. I was just really confused as to why things that we’d agreed to do together wasn’t happening. Like I was in Hamburg and I wasn’t able to get anyone on the telephone, but I was reading rumours on the band fan forums about John leaving the band and what not. It was all just very strange and behind my back for the most part. Just very frustrating and very confusing. Even after Athens I wasn’t thinking in terms of the band being over or anything. I thought we’d get together, have it out and carry on. I was quite shocked when I learned on the band’s website that Dave and John had left the band. He named Reg too of course but then Reg rang me almost immediately to distance himself from all that bollocks and it was nice that he did. I think what was positive for me really the second time around was that my friendship with Reg and survived. That was far more important to me than anything else.
Spaceman: My overall impression on reading your book was that there was an awful lot of unexpressed feeling. You even touch upon it yourself when you mention the song ‘Things I Wish I Said’ being prophetic. Was that The Chameleons biggest failing? Simply not talking?
Mark Burgess : No, it was probably not listening.
Spaceman: I remember in an interview you did with The Big Takeover that you described your reconciliation with Dave Fielding as happening “over a pint of beer”. I may be wrong, but I had the impression that you rather brushed aside old differences, that you didn’t really get into the ‘cause and effect’ of your frustrations with each other. There was no real healing in fact; Just a papering over cracks for old times sake. Is that a fair summary? Are the two of you unable to hold that kind of conversation?
Mark Burgess : That’s probably accurate. I mean I came to it with the attitude that I wasn’t going to bring any of that baggage with me. It didn’t matter to me anymore who said what to whom and whose fault this was that that happened. I just let all that go. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was starting fresh and getting back to the very basic fact that I loved these guys and they loved me too, otherwise a Chameleons reunion never would have happened. As far as I’m concerned, that’s still true. I love all of them very, very much. But be in a band with them? Put my destiny in their hands? No!
Spaceman: The second split was very public and somewhat spiteful. Yet looking back soberly, in the cold light of day, the issues that led up to your band breakups don’t seem all that serious. Expressing dissatisfaction with a new song during jamming, solo tours, going/not going to Greece… these are hardly the betrayals of the century. Would you agree? I‘m sure during the history of rock friends and colleagues have done far worse.
Mark Burgess : I’d agree up to a point yeah. Like I said, I thought we’d work it out and carry on. But I have to say, walking out that night in Athens and having to tell the audience that the others hadn’t turned up for the show, and seeing the disappointment on their faces – this was a city we’d never been too before, but who loved the band – that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It was fuckin’ horrible actually. So you know, I kind prickle that you brush that aside as being something not very significant or worth getting very upset about. I think it’s the most diabolical thing I’ve experienced as a musician.
Spaceman: Could you work with Dave Fielding again?
Mark Burgess : No, not if they paid me in solid gold ingots.
Spaceman: Okay, but one thing I loved in the book was where you described forming the band. You were discussing how it would work and Dave says something like “It’ll work because we’re mates. We’ll just stay mates and let the music take care of itself”. That’s a beautiful message. Dave’s words, but you having the good grace to put them in your book must mean you see some value in them too, right?
Mark Burgess : Yeah, it was the only thing he could have said that would get me into that band. But Dave was always able to read me pretty well back then. Not so much later on, and not at all around the reunion, but early on. He always knew how to get me on board with something he wanted to do, or a direction he wanted to take.
Spaceman: In our piece on ST we speculate that The Chameleons were ahead of their time. The length and quality of ST as a cohesive whole album during an era of singles bands. Would you agree? Were you conscious of it at the time? Was it deliberate?
Mark Burgess : Yeah we wanted to make albums. One hopes that you have at least one good ‘single’ you can pull, but we wanted to make albums that were a journey from track one to the last track. That’s how we always tried to put albums together. We were an album band first and foremost as far as we were concerned.
Spaceman: I’d also say that The Chameleons sound has made something of a comeback in the last decade. I’m thinking of the success of bands like Editors, Interpol and even The Killers. Do you feel that if you’d held on a little longer, that you could’ve achieved the breakthrough your music deserved?
Mark Burgess : I don’t care about breakthroughs, or careers. I care about doing work that I’m pleased with and it’s great when I get positive feedback on it from genuine people that bought the records or traveled to a show. I mean I LOVE the Editors, I think they’re really, really great, so I mean if one those guys were to say, you know, “oh we loved The Chameleons”, then of course that makes me proud, because I’m such a fan anyway and to think that something I was involved with influenced music that I actually bought and really love, well it gives me a very warm feeling. I KNOW The Chameleons were a good band, wrote good, moving songs, made some good records. You know. That’s all I can tell you. People are still coming to see me perform. Great.
Spaceman: Tell us about your current guise, ChameleonVox. How does that differ from you old bands?
Mark Burgess : I’m enjoying it a lot more. I’m free in Vox to just sing the songs and enjoy myself with some good friends and characters. I feel less pressured, more appreciated and again, I think we make the music sound and feel fresh. Some of the audiences that we’re playing to, here and abroad, have been brilliant and the shows have been great. I’m having a really good time doing it.
Spaceman: You have different bands in Europe and USA. I thought that was quite clever, logistically. Any disadvantages? Does it ever get a bit schizophrenic?
Mark Burgess : It can do yeah. The biggest problem is that you want to work with all of them, and of course you can’t. There comes a point where you have to choose from a whole army of people that are eager to play the music with you, and that’s hard, because it means so much to the people that are playing the music. In fact it means MORE to them than it did with The Chameleons. These guys have far more passion and love of the music than the original line up did, and that’s a fact. I think that’s why there’a so much power and energy in the music now, and as the singer they get me to where I need to be every time so I can perform this stuff.
Spaceman: Is ChameleonVox just a vehicle to play old songs? Do you plan to write with the band(s)?
Mark Burgess : Well I’ve been writing all the time, I just haven’t made a record lately. Yes I want to make a new record and some of the musicians I’m working with, I hope, will be on it when I do but I don’t know for sure. I am ChameleonsVox, that’s the name I work under now and it includes anyone else that wants to do it along with me. There’s no set band as such. I suppose it’s kind of like what Mark E. Smith does with The Fall.
Spaceman: How has your writing changed over the years?
Mark Burgess : Well it’s changed as my experiences have changed me. My work’s always reflected what’s been going on around me and I’ve never really known what a record is actually gong to be like until it starts to take shape in a studio and nears completion. And it also depends on who I’m making the records with because they bring so much to them. Everything I try and do, I also try to be spontaneous and not think or rationalize too much about it. I’m a very instinctive writer I think and I’m trying to stay true to that as much as I can.
Spaceman: What music are you listening to these days?
Mark Burgess : The Album Leaf, Beach House, The Broken Bells, Efterklang, The Marzipan Man, Sleep Party People, M83, Boards of Canada, Caribou, Honeyroot, Kid Loco, The Prids, Repeater, The Notwist
I could go on and on..
Spaceman: Proudest (musical) moment?
Mark Burgess : Walking out at the Manchester Academy in 2000.
Spaceman: Biggest (musical) regret?
Mark Burgess : Not getting the opportunity to play Glastonbury Festival
Spaceman: And finally, watching Man City play this season… pleasure or pain?
Mark Burgess : Well as usual with Man City it’s elements of both but I love that we’re competing in the top four now and I believe we can win a Premiership title before too long, which would be fantastic. I’m just sad that my father died before it could be achieved. Having said that I hope that I’ll live to see it.
[sic] Magazine wishes to thank Mark Burgess. Mark’s book, View From A Hill is out now published by Metropolitan Press. Brussels concert photography with kind permission George Ternent. See our live feature via the link provided.