England - Full Moon 61 - 10/02/01
an interview with Mark Burgess
Back from their holidays - an interview with Mark Burgess
Shortly after the Chameleons broke up, Manchester Evening News writer Mick Middles called
them 'the greatest band this city has ever produced'. Forget about The Fall, never mind The
Smiths, goodbye Oasis! Mark Burgess, Dave Fielding, Reg Smithies and John Lever are the real
thing. A band that managed to find their place in recent music history without selling out.
Okay, they never made it as big as their musical soul mates from Liverpool, Echo & The Bunnymen,
but at least that saved them the experience of commercial failure later on.
But wait, did I say The Chameleons broke up? Well, they did, but the good news is that they
are back together again after a break that lasted well over a decade. Last year saw the release
of Strip, an album of semi-acoustic re-workings of old material. Initially just intended
as warm up sessions to kill some time waiting for drummer Lever who was busy elsewhere, the
three piece rehearsals sounded so good, the band decided to release them, before hitting the
road again. Now they are back with the first album of all new material in 15 (!) years and the
cleverly titled Why Call It Anything manages to bring back past glories without actually
sounding only like a fading copy of the original.
Nowadays main man Mark Burgess might champion records like Mogwai's Young Team, Morgan
Fisher's Miniatures or Jeff Buckley's Grace ("if you don't have that album you
deserve to be taken out and shot" - Burgess), but The Chameleons still sound very much like
themselves. Luna Kafé recently had the opportunity to chat with Mark Burgess to find out what
the reunion is all about.
Carsten: What's the most enjoyable part about being back with the Chameleons?
Mark: "It's really great when we play, doing the concerts, playing in the studio, but
the rest of the time it drives me mad (laughs)! I could definitely live without it [the media
and marketing aspects]. It sucks the fun out of the whole thing really. I also think, people
take us far too seriously. A lot of people who are into the music are into it far too much and
they analyze and deconstruct it far too much."
Carsten: You already toured before the comeback album's release and took everything
really slowly. Was that a conscious decision?
Mark: "Yeah, we took it really slowly, one step at a time, but there was no long-term
strategy or plan. We just wanted to do what we enjoy doing and not do what we don't enjoy
Carsten: Rumours of the comeback have been circulating for years. When did you
actually decide to reform?
Mark: "It was just a combination of things that you don't really have any control over.
Just a natural timing, almost astrological, like a clockwork, everything just clicks into place
and then it's the right time for everyone. It took a life of it's own."
Carsten: Listening to Strip it seems that the time was right for only three
of you first, though...
Mark: "Yeah, that's right (laughs). John was involved in other things and he wasn't free
to join us. So rather than hanging around waiting for John for a couple of months we thought we
would do something that would enable us to prepare for the [upcoming] concerts. That's what the
Strip record is all about. It's just us rediscovering our own music again and learning
again to play alongside of each other again, cause we hadn't done it in so long. So it was
really for our benefit."
Carsten: Did that come as a surprise that playing together for the first time in
over ten years was so easy?
Mark: "I thought it would be a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult, yeah, but
I was very pleasantly surprised how easily we slipped back into it. It was like we just had a
holiday. It was like coming back from that, well, 10-year holiday (laughs)!"
Carsten: How did you approach writing and recording the new album? Do you try to
pretend it's your first again or do you have all your achievements in mind?
Mark: "We never had any long-term plans back then and we didn't have any now. Everybody
around is did, but we always just took it song by song, record by record, gig by gig. Whenever
we finished a record or finished a tour, people would say: 'When is there gonna be another one?'
and we replied: 'Well, we don't know IF there's gonna be another one!' For this record is was
the same. The just got together at various times with 8-Tracks, I did some ideas, Dave did some
ideas, John went away and listened to them and constructed his base around them, but it all
happened very, very quickly."
Carsten: Did you put a lot of thought into finding a new record label after the
hiatus? I suppose you had some bad experiences with your very first deal in the early 80s.
Mark: "Well, they weren't really dramatically bad experiences. Compared to most of the
experiences most people have to deal with in their lives, it was nothing really. You know what
I mean (laughs)? Like losing your friend or losing your parents is a very heavy experience, but
not getting paid by a record company is nothing really. I know what you mean though. It was
difficult. When you're young and you're with record companies, you sign contracts and stuff,
you're trying to put your music in the hands of people you don't really know. You have a lot of
trust in them. In our case, they were bafoons, they were clowns. But we took it far to seriously
back then anyway. We'd spend an hour arguing about the length of a fade, you know! (laughs) We've
matured a lot now, we don't take it as seriously. We just let the music happen. We try to avoid
getting sucked into the machinery of cultivating an image, making a fucking pop promo, videos
and all that crap like nice smiley photographs in fields or in the woods. We try to stay away
from all that. We just want to get involved with Rock N Roll music. And Artful is a label that
lets us do that. You don't have to sign your life away! You don't have to sign to them for the
next, like, SIX years! It's just like: 'Wanna make a record? Cool!' It was just dead easy and
Carsten: Did you look to other bands who reformed over the past decade or so, to
make sure you don't repeat their faults or maybe even learn from what they did right?
Mark: "The only band that have reformed that I've actually seen was Echo And The Bunnymen
at the Markthalle in Hamburg. And I enjoyed it! They played quite a lot of stuff from the first
couple of albums. It was a shame that Pete De Freitas wasn't there [he died in 1989 - Carsten's
note], but apart from that the band was tighter and a lot more powerful than I ever remember it
being. For us it doesn't really feel like a reunion so much, so I don't think in those terms.
It just feels like getting back together after a long period of rest. We just carried on where
we left off, as if we just took a month off!"
Carsten: How do you select songs for your live set? Do you make sure that all the
old favorites are in there?
Mark: "No! What we do is, we play what we think is still relevant. We play Second
Skin cause we know what a big song it is to people, and since I'm the singer what we do is
gotta be relevant from my point of view. I wouldn't sing some songs anymore, because I don't
believe in what is said there, it is no longer relevant to me at all. It might be relevant to
people in the audience..."
Carsten: So are there many songs that you think have passed their "best before"
Mark: "Yeah! Nostalgia for example. I think it's a great track, very well recorded,
but it's no longer relevant to me. I'm not looking over my shoulder, I'm looking at where I am
now, not where I've been. Some of the old songs are more relevant now than when we wrote them.
Soul In Isolation or Up The Down Escalator are far more relevant now. When I did
them, people were going: 'What the fuck is he talking about?'. Now they go: 'Wow, that's spot
on!' When I write lyrics, and that's what I've always done, I let out what I'm actually feeling
and what is going on in my life. There is so much crap about, especially about our lyrics. Again,
people put far too much important in it. They imagine that I'm sitting down by candlelight
writing into the night... but I'm NOT LIKE THAT! A lot of the times, I don't even write them
down, I just do them on the mic."
Carsten: How satisfied are you with what chameleons achieved throughout their career
so far? Are there many things left. things you missed out on?
Mark: "Yeah, there are places that I'd like to go and play because we've never been there
before. Australia for example or Ireland. We never have played Ireland! There has to be some
challenge! I don't wanna go back playing the same venues over and over again to the same audience!"
Carsten: That brings me to the end already, any famous last words, anything that you
definitely want to see in print?
Mark: "Yeah! I hope that you [the Germans] won't be too disappointed when England beats
you 2-0!" [for our readers who don't care about soccer: England caused a sensation by actually
beating Germany 5-1 in that game! - Carsten's note]
Copyright © 2001 Carsten Wohlfeld