Seismic Interview: Mark Burgess of The Chameleons Vox.
Written By:Tilly Rodina & Jason Friendt
Interview By: Tilly Rodina & Jason Friendt
Given the large crowd last Tuesday night, you’d have thought Interpol was playing the Crocodile. Over 400 people packed the venue, including hipsters, indie rockers, new wavers, old wavers, goths, and yes, even housewives. It wasn’t Interpol, but rather a man who’s band clearly had an impact on Interpol’s sound – Mark Burgess.
Back in 1981, Burgess’ band, The Chameleons UK, broke onto the music scene with meaningful lyrics, vocal passion, and the band’s unique dual guitar sound, which continues to be emulated by many guitarist today.Burgess, currently on tour with Chameleons Vox (Chameleons UK less other original members) agreed to meet with Seismic- Sound.com to talk about his bands (past and present), his book A View From A Hill, and his struggle with stardom.
What was it like for you in the height of it all in the 80’s. Is it something you enjoyed?: It was bit of a nightmare really….It wasn’t a pleasant experience being in the band at that stage…..early on it was.. ya know.
It seemed as though in that time your music was blossoming and spreading: Well that may have been the perception in the U.S. but in England where we lived we were kind of ignored and it was a struggle to do anything, Even while we were on Geffen, knowone in England was interested in what we were doing. The people who actually came to shows, that seemed quite strange, because it wasn’t consistent. In Manchester we would play to a lot of people, in London we would play to a lot of people, then we would go to Liverpool or Newcastle and their wouldn’t be anybody there. And I was the one out of everybody who was pushing for the band to come to America and to spend more time here, where I felt the band was more appreciated, more understood. And we weren’t really getting along back then very well, so it was all a bit of a nightmare.
I wondered what happened to the band in terms of really making it in the United States, and here I had all these visions of amazing success you must have had throughout the U.K.: That wasn’t the case at all…no. I was surprised back then you didn’t go the route of MTV which was so big: It wasn’t a medium that we had any direct experience of. There wasn’t really anyone around us to guide us..you know. The people that we admired the most in the medium were ridiculously expensive to work with, such as Tim Pope who did some of The Cure stuff…he was insanely expensive, the budgets were insanely expensive … and we didn’t really feel comfortable spending that kind of money on a promotional tool. So we didn’t bother with it, and we didn’t get as much exposure because of that. So we just got on with the music.
Well The Chameleons were kind of “best kept secret” of sorts when I was in school, and I kind of remember feeling cool for knowing music that wasn’t mainstream, and being played all over MTV. In our mind it was even cooler that you weren’t being played on MTV: (Laughs) Thank you, ya know we weren’t really…this sounds strange for a music group to say this, but we weren’t really that career motivated, there wasnt any real strategies. I think coming here and basing ourselves here for 18 months which is what I wanted us to do, and what Tony Fletcher (friend/pseudo manager) wanted us to do. It’s the closest we came to ever formulating a strategy, so before that we focused on making the songs as powerful as we could..we enjoyed that, and the shows and the records, but we weren’t really strategically minded in terms of marketing it or anything, we weren’t really that bothered…we really didn’t care about cultivating any kind of image or anything, we were just about the music ya know. So that was our failure really, that we didn’t have anyone with us that was able to market us properly…cause we didn’t care enough about that.We were embarrassed about all that….the way we looked at it, we didn’t really want any of that, cause where we lived ya know. If we would have gone back to where we lived, we would have never been able to live it down.
But the photographs I’ve seen were all you, there were no stylists involved: No..I actually threatened to leave Geffen once because of a photo session, cause we did try, and I think it was Tony who said ya know “do it and they will see that it really doesn’t work for you and they will forget about it.” So we went to this place ya know where like Simple Minds and bands like that, and at first it was like we were little kids that had all this stuff in it, and we were trying it all on ya know..mixing pirate hats with overcoats and they were photographing us. But when we saw the pictures we were mortified, and I actually said to, her name was Alicia Winters “You know what if you use those photographs on our records I’m leaving the band” and she thought I was joking and I wasn’t, so she made and emergency call to Geffen in California. I wasn’t going to let them do it. I care more about my integrity as a person than I care about selling a few more records ya know. I did it for a laugh, we thought when they saw them they would realize how ridiculous it was, but then they actually liked them and it was quite worrying. I said “I’m out , I will form another band”. They tried to lump us in with U2 and Simple Minds, and that couldn’t be more removed from us. We were close to bands like The Fall, not so much Simple Minds and U2, but that was their perception of it.
It’s crazy to think of them trying to change your image and not being able to spend the obscene amounts of money to make a video etc..cause when you think about what it is today, any band can make and sell their own CD’s, they can make their own videos and post them on YouTube, and boom: You see that’s where we were coming from. 1979-80 when we found the band, that’s what was going on ya know. It was very independent of the mainstream bullshit, and that’s what inspired me to want to be in the group in the end. I’ve always bought records my whole life ya know. I’ve always been interested in music, but that was what really inspired me to want to do it. Then it swung back again by “82”, it was packaged pop music, pre-packaged pop music again, that all had fallen by the way side, and that’s where we were coming from, and now its coming closer to that again. With all that accessibility. It’s nice to know we are in a time where you can make money from your albums and it doesn’t all go to the record label. When we were with these labels, I would find out we sold 70,o00 copies of “Script of The Bridge”but I have never seen a penny for that. So with all of this download is killing music, it’s actually just killing record company profits, but I don’t protest against it. I never got paid anyway when people were going and buying records legitimately, I wasn’t getting paid.
Didn’t that make you mad?: I mean ya know….unless your selling a massive amount of records, the record company can’t disguise that…it was pretty normal. U2 who is obviously selling millions of records, people in the record company can’t argue, but most bands don’t and that’s normal. Talk to anybody from that period. I remember we had spoken with Martin Jackson of Swing Out Sister, her left the music business completely because he was getting ripped off left and right. He didn’t get paid, he never got paid, but what can you do, that’s the nature of the beast.
Aside from the image thing, was there anything else that made you close to walking away?: I did almost leave ya..there was one period when we were at war with the a record label, and it got to the point where, just keeping everything going was just (in 1994) so difficult to keep things going. I mean you couldn’t do anything, and then what happened was..first of all John Peel rang us up and said will you do another session for us. So we did that, which allowed to write some new songs and stuff, and then when we got invited to New York for the new music seminar in “84”. But at that point I was ready to leave the group. I said this is ridiculous, we can’t really do anything, there’s no point in being a group, we couldn’t write anything legally, we couldn’t gig, cause we couldn’t afford it, we couldn’t make a record, we couldn’t do anything. It came really close then in 1984.
Getting away from the business and back to the music itself. You have had and still have an influence on music. How is it that your stuff remains timely despite the years that have gone by?: (pause) Ummmm….I have no idea, I mean I know we had two exceptionally great guitar players, and its unusual to because of the interactions of those two guitars. Two very different approaches, vastly different approaches, but yet they came together as one thing, so if you play guitar or you’re interested in playing guitar, you get excited by guitar players, that may have had something to do with it, and also I think the kinds of things I wrote about. The context of that music wasn’t typical at the time. I wasn’t like.. post-punk, post wave, which was all very bleak and urban, which I like actually, they were good writers. One of my favorite writers was Mark E. Smith, ya know what I mean, who is as day and night as ya can get. I mean do appreciate that, but I wasn’t doing that. So maybe that’s what gave it a timeless quality to it. I really have no idea …. we were influenced by bands, but once we actually started making our own, we started being influenced by eachother..ya know what I mean. We’d get compared to Echo and The Bunnymen and psychedelic Furs and it’s just like nonsense cause they weren’t direct influences at all. Our influences were like ya know, glam and punk, and some of the prog-rock guys like The Who and Alice Cooper, so I don’t honestly know.
You very busy with all these projects and now you have this book, which is very difficult to get your hands on in the United States…: Well here is the thing. I did a first edition hard cover and it was very big and very heavy and very expensive. But it did sell out and quite a few copies made it to the U.S., but it surprised me when it sold out because all I did was announce it on the websites and like MySpace maybe. We didn’t place any ads, we didn’t send any out for reviews really. Half sold out before the book was delivered with pre-order. But none of them made it to any shops or anything. So the paperback will be hopefully more accessible, and cheaper.
In regards to the book….its called “A View From a Hill”, and it goes through your experience with Chameleons etc..but tell us some of the high points of the book or even the low points: It starts with the lowest point…..I didnt want to end the book so negatively, although there were a lot of positive things in it. But it starts with growing up in England in the 60’s and 70’s, then the punk explosion thing ya know with the Electric Circus and all of that, and what it was like being in Manchester during all that time. Then the evolution of The Chameleons and such which became essential to it, but I tried to write the book with a much broader spectrum, so that there is something there for everyone really. But the last chapter was for my father who was dying, so I tried to put down more of the esoteric idea of reality, so people could see where the actual lyrics come from. That was the idea anyway, that if I put all these ideas out there people would kind of see my thought process within the lyrics.Then I sent it out to a few people and asked them which of the boring bits I should cut out, and unanimously they said don’t cut anything out. I’m thinking that’s crazy cause its 700 pages….but the paper back comes out to about 560 pages.
How did you find that time to write the book?: Well I did it over a period of time, but I didn’t really start focusing on it, till my father got ill, cause I wanted him to read it. So that made me knuckle down.
And did he read it?: Yes….he liked it yes.
Was your father in music?: No…he played futbol for Manchester England
So where did this come from?: Well there was music in the family…. it is in the genes, but my mother and father weren’t musical.
If you could go back and change anything at the height of The Chameleons, would you change anything?: Ya know it all depends on my mood really. Sometimes I think I wouldnt have joined the band, because I had very different ideas of what I wanted to do. I abandoned some of those ideas once the peel session came out and our lives literally changed overnight…I mean I’m not kidding. The very next day it began with overtures from Virgin music and stuff. Our lives completely changed. So I had to abandon a lot of the ideas that I wanted to do, cause I really didn’t take it that seriously when I joined the group, I didn’t expect us to be successful, I did it because I got on with Dave and Reg and Tony, who’s driving us around, looking out for us. That’s the only reason I did it. When I started playing I had no interest in taking it seriously. But ultimately I wouldn’t want to change anything because of the people in my life. My life would be completely different. So the real answer is….. when I am not in a bad mood, I wouldn’t change anything….(laughs).
A few more pics can be seen here:http://www.flickr.com/photos/35317502@N00/5033976615/
Here is some footage from the Seattle show: