Rewriting the Script – The Stereo Embers interview with Mark Burgess

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Well, we gotta say, when an offer arrives out of the blue to interview one of post-punk’s most venerated talents, we don’t hesitate. And without a doubt Mark Burgess of the Chameleons (and now of Chameleons Vox), as much as any writer/musician from the original class, defines many of the basic qualities we now reflexively associate with the form. The dark,  broodingly melodic, and often majestic soundscapes the band put together starting with its seminal debut Script of the Bridge remain unsurpassed in the canon, and on the eve of a North American tour during which ChamVox will be playing that debut in full as well as, well, your guess is as good as ours, Mark sat down at the other end of an email exchange for a quick chat. Oh, and in case Chameleons Vox is coming to a venue near you and you’re not sure whether you’re going or not, we’ve added a live clip down below there to put paid to such capricious wavering.

STEREO EMBERS MAGAZINE – Hi Mark, thanks for taking the time to speak to SEM. Let’s start basic and up-to-date if we can. The upcoming tour – and I’m very pleased it’s coming to Portland – is mostly based around Script of the Bridge, the Chameleons’ much-lauded debut. How extensive is the tour, will there be material outside that album on offer as well, and who’s in the band this time around?

MARK BURGESS – Well I haven’t seen a full list of the dates yet but my understanding is that it’s an extensive coast to coast tour of North America with two or three dates in Canada [late summer/early fall 2015 – ed.].  After that we have dates in South America. The initial feeling was that we couldn’t continue to tour the way we have been doing over the last six years. There are various reasons for that, fiscal in that we continually have to front thousands of dollars to make it happen. The tours do really well but fronting that is often a stress.  Added to which it takes up a lot of time. I’ve been doing two tours a year on average for the last six years and that’s a strain too. I’ll still continue to perform with ChameleonsVox when the right offers are made, but the day to day touring out of a bus will cease. Having said that the response in this tour has been so fantastic we were all having second thoughts. I started telling people that we’re doing a farewell tour this year just so we can so a come-back tour next year.  Currently I’m the last of Chameleons Prime standing. In guitar is Chris Oliver who’s been part of ChamsVox since its beginning. The other guitar is Neil Dwerryhouse who I first worked with in 1994 with The Sons Of God. On drums Yves Altana who I’ve made a few records with over the years and behind the scenes Tony Skinkis who’s been with The Chameleons since day one.

SEM – Read recently that you were as much if not more interested in pursuing drama and the theater when the Chameleons came together. Did you ever consider going back to pursue that in any way?

MB –That’s right, that was my plan and then in the wake of the Peel session my life changed and I had to make a choice. Not as an actor no.  I was offered one of 12 places in Manchester doing a degree in film and television production around 1990 and I seriously considered that but then I moved to Scotland instead to take care of an estate up there.

SEM – I’ve talked with Martin Bramah about how psilocybin had quite an effect on the early 80’s post-punk generation, especially in Manchester. Could you speak to its specific effects on your process – or, more pointedly, your perceptions – and to what extent if any it helped mark that scene out from other contemporaneous scenes around the UK?

MB – For me it was purely experimental. I became very fascinated by its effects, mushrooms in particular. I hated smoking weed and hash, just made me fall asleep, so the mushroom experience was extremely interesting. I’ve carried on to this day but I treat them with a great amount of respect and only do them rarely when I want to get more in touch with myself. I’ve never had a bad experience. I had a brief flirtation with LSD in the early 80’s but quickly gave it up.  I prefer mushrooms.  I dunno, I mean speed and smack were the drugs of choice for most of the bands around back then I think. The sort of stuff we were into was regarded as very ‘hippy’ back then and somewhat passé. There was just us, Teardrop Explodes bands like that. So from that point of view we were pretty much outsiders. We weren’t taking the ‘right’ drugs or something.

SEM – On a related note, it’s worth noting, I think, the difference in overall feel of bands coming out of Liverpool at the time – Echo, Teardrop, etc – vs. those coming out of Manchester, even while artists in both areas were experimenting with hallucinogens. The former, as you’ve rightly pointed out in an interview with The Quietus, explored a more straightforward psychedelic impetus in their sound while those coming from Manchester seemed to have retained a harder edge to them, even if only lyrically though most often musically as well. Any explanation for that in your mind?

MB – No. Not really. Other than to say that I just write about what’s going on around me. I always have.  Environments are different aren’t they? I mean Manchester back then had a very strong cultural ID. So did Liverpool, London, Glasgow.  While sharing cultural similarities they were very different places with their own stingily defined sub cultures.  The music was bound to reflect that.


[photo courtesy artist]

SEM – So, I have this theory regarding post-punk, that the reason music from that time is still so powerful and alluring to so many young musicians (the prevalence of post-punk/darkwave scenes around the world right now is rather staggering), is that the themes it tends to address – alienation, oppression, the plight of the individual vs. the state, et al – never go away and in fact are as much embedded in our psyches and reinforced by the current state of affairs as ever. In this way, the music never seems to age. Your thoughts?

MB – Well yeah I’d agree but I’d say that those themes have evolved in such a way as to make a lot of the records that reflected (those themes) from previous generations seem prophetic and certainly MORE relevant than when the records were made. Added to which the 80’s underground still carried the Punk attitude. That’s what Punk was, it wasn’t a sound, it was an attitude.

SEM – Many people, I think, would be surprised by the influence of dub on your bass playing. How key do you feel that was to the unique structure, the instant recognizability  of the Chameleons’ sound?

MB – I didn’t even know I was a dub player until 2002 when a Rasta bass player of some note came backstage to congratulate me and told me I was. That made me very happy because, while I’ve had some cool teachers when I was starting out – Gay Advert,  JJ Burnel, Jah Wobble were amongst my favourites – I love dub bass. I mean when I joined, with Dave and Reg (on guitars) it was the only way to go because there just wasn’t the space to play traditional bass. All I could do was anchor the root and try and compliment what the guitars were doing. I have no doubt that I was in a band with two of the most brilliant guitar players Manchester had ever produced.  I was a lot more melodic before I joined them but had to close that down for the arrangements to work.  That was okay ‘cause vocally I had a free hand.

SEM – You have what might be described as a dizzying discography, covering multiple bands and side ventures. Do any of those projects figure into future plans beyond this tour, and just in general, what’s the future hold for you at this point?

MB – I dunno. I’m a bass player and a singer not a fortune teller. I don’t make plans.  I swim with the current of life and embrace things and opportunities that interest me and pass over the things that don’t. That’s the way I’ve lived my life and I’ve enjoyed it.

SEM – I’m always curious as to process, have gathered quite the collection of responses. What’s your writing process like? Sounds first, words later? Other way around? Varies?

MB – It varies really. Sometimes a progression will come to me, sometimes it’s a line or two rattling round my head, sometimes a loop riff a colleague is playing.  Anything really can provide the spark.  There’s no real formula.

SEM – Whether speaking musical or otherwise, who were your influences when first starting out and have they changed and/or have others piled on over the years?

MB – I don’t want to talk about influences any more. I mean my earliest influences are out there for anyone who’s interested. I’ve been listening to records since I was four years old and I was born in 1960.  Loved the Beatles and the whole 60’s thing, loved glam when I was 12 – my first ever gig experience was T. Rex in 1973 – loved The Pistols when I was 15. Then a whole myriad of music alongside it or in the wake of it. But when we started the band we were determined to shun obvious influences. If we did anything that remotely resembled something we’d heard in terms of style or content we dropped it.

SEM – Fantasy question: If you could work with any musician, alive or passed, who would it be?

MB – Kate Bush, David Bowie, Tony Visconti, preferably all three.

SEM – Do you get a chance to listen to much new music these days, and if so, anyone catching your ear?

MB – I loved the records by Blasted Canyons out of SF before they split up a couple of years ago. In fact there were a lot of those SF underground bands that I really liked, Grass Widow was another. I was a big fan of Danish band  Efterklang but then they split up too. I seem to be the kiss of death for contemporary artists. Currently I really love Evie Vine who we played with in Germany last year and who I hope I’ll work alongside again in the future.

SEM – Alright, Mark, thanks again, and see you in Portland.

MB – Hope so mate 🙂 and you’re welcome.