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ChameleonsVox: An Interview with Mark Burgess

Mark Burgess of The Chameleons and ChameleonsVox
27 September 2019

Photo by José Luis Luna

With their legendary 1983 debut album Script of the Bridge, The Chameleons UK became post-punk trailblazers, emerging as one of the first bands to put their hometown of Manchester, England on the musical map. They only released two more albums (1985’s What Does Anything Mean? Basically and 1986’s Strange Times) before disbanding – but that was enough to secure a fervent fanbase that remains loyal to this day (and establish them as a key influence for bands like Interpol, The National, and many others). They reunited for three more albums just after the turn of the millennium, but broke up once again. But singer and bassist Mark Burgess has not been idle since then: he has participated in several projects, most notably ChameleonsVox, the band he leads (with an ever-evolving lineup) in order to play his back catalogue on tour and, in 2013, release a 4-song EP, M + D = 1(8). Speaking from his home in Manchester, Burgess discusses the ChameleonsVox Fall 2019 American tour, his nomadic ways, and the next reunion of The Chameleons.

So your next ChameleonsVox tour starts very soon – October 8, in Boston…

MARK BURGESS: It’s all been up in the air, because I only got the approval for my visa the day before yesterday! And I still don’t have the stamp in my passport; I’ve had the approval, now I’ve got to wait for my attorney to give me all the paperwork so I can go down to the embassy and get it stamped. I had my tourist visa cancelled [laughs].

Why?

MARK BURGESS: They won’t tell me! But they’re not obliged to tell you. I was actually on my way to the United States, and I was going to stay for Christmas and New Year, and then I was on a flight to Hong Kong from LAX, and I got to Dublin to get my connection, and somewhere between Manchester and Ireland, I got my [visa] cancelled. And then when I went to the embassy to find out why, later on, they wouldn’t tell me. They just said, if you want to go to the United States, apply to get a work permit. So now I’ve been able to secure one that allows me to re-enter the United States and work for the next three years. But it was very expensive and it took about 18 months.

Well, glad you want to come here badly enough to go through all that!

MARK BURGESS: There’s moments where I almost quit, to be honest, but I’ve got there in the end. As soon as I get my passport stamped, I’ll grab a flight. My band, I think they’re meeting up in Syracuse, where one of my musicians is based, to start rehearsals there. I’ll join them as soon as I can.

Who is in your band lineup for this tour?

MARK BURGESS: For this tour, I’m working with Andru Aesthetic from California on guitar, Justin Lomery from upstate New York is on the other guitar, and Todd Demma, who’s previously worked with The Cult and The Pixies as crew, is drumming. None of the band I work with here in England were available to do it, so I’ve had to hire American musicians. But I have worked with Justin and Andru; I’ve toured previously with them. So it’s not like I’m hiring complete strangers. The only person that I’m not so familiar with is the drummer.

This isn’t the first time you’ve had to scramble a bit to get a lineup for a tour…

MARK BURGESS: This happened to me on the last two tours. On the one previous to the last one, a bandmate’s mother died while we were in San Francisco. He got the call and stayed with us as long as he could, but then he had to fly back for the funeral. So I wrote a friend of mine from Boston who plays with The Curtain Society to stand in for him. And that was one day rehearsal with him. So that was the first time. And then last year, a guitar player got sick and had to drop out of the tour after the first day. In that situation, I had to use a couple of guys out of the support band to play some songs. And another band that we played with, there was a guy who knew some of our stuff, and I brought him. So I was actually using three guitar players at varying intervals, throughout the set, to cover for the one that fell sick and had to drop out. It was extremely successful. I was hoping that this time, it would be different, but no! [laughs] I’m just cursed with problems every time I try and do a tour. But we deal with it, and they’ve all been good. The last one, people actually got into the fact that I was introducing different people to play different songs. It made it into something special, and a little bit different, so people really got off on it, which I didn’t expect. But it’s not something that I’d care to repeat, to be quite honest. Got my fingers crossed this time. I think it’s going to be good – there are places we’re playing that I haven’t played before: Salt Lake City; Augusta. I have played Florida many, many years ago, but never with the band. I like Florida. I spent quite a few summers in the panhandle there, around Panama City Beach, and I loved it there. So I’m looking forward to going back to Florida.

For more than a decade, you didn’t play America, and then you started up again almost 20 years ago. What made you suddenly start doing shows here again?

MARK BURGESS: I think it was getting back with the original band, for sure. It was the logical next step. We came together to play some shows, and they went far, far better than we expected them to be. Although I knew that the band had become more popular in the years since we’d stopped, I didn’t realize to that extent, how much it’d grown. So once we played in Europe and in the U.K., when we got back together, the number of requests that we were getting to take it to the States was just colossal. So that’s what started it off. And then, John Lever, the drummer, asked me if I’d step in and play some Chameleons with him and the band he’d put together and do a couple of shows with him, which I did. And then it grew from there. Then there was a project in Atlanta called Black Swan Lane – they were in a situation where they hadn’t toured before, but they were spending a lot of money on magazine advertising, to advertise their CDs. I mean, serious money. And I remember saying to them, “Look for what you spend on one ad in that magazine, you can put on a tour, and you’ll get more exposure, for sure, and you’ll probably sell some records.” They’re still a going concern. It’s not so much a band, it’s a writer – it’s one guy, Jack Sobel, who writes and produces, and he gets different people in at different times. In fact, I think he’s just done some recording with another one of The Chameleons, Dave Fielding. He’s had a couple members of The Sun and the Moon, which is a band that I played with briefly after The Chameleons. So we’ve got a bit of a tradition. And it makes it easier if you’re working with an American band when you go out and tour, because obviously you only need one set of drums, you only need one backline, you theoretically only need one bus. So it just makes it more doable, because it’s such an expensive thing to do. I mean, an American tour can cost anything from $30,000 to $45,000 to do, for an English band. Just getting the band across the Atlantic is a logistical exercise in itself. So to share those costs with an American band is good. Although this time, we’re not sharing it with an American band, we’re sharing it with another English band, Theatre of Hate, who are in top form. So this is a bit of a departure.

And Jay Aston of Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel for several of the dates, also.

MARK BURGESS: Yeah, I think I played with his band back in the day. I don’t know him personally.

In the past, you’ve played a particular album for a tour. What can people expect this time?

MARK BURGESS: We did Script of the Bridge that way. I did want to do Strange Times there, which we were performing earlier in the spring, across Europe. But unfortunately, the band that I work with here, the two guitar players specifically, couldn’t commit to it, and I couldn’t bring the drummer either, in the end, because the work permit situation was just beyond us. So I’ve had to hire an American band, and with the limited time I’ve got to rehearse – I mean, Strange Times, I’ve really enjoyed doing it as a performer. But it is very tough. It might not sound complicated, but to perform it as we do, like the record, it’s very complicated, it takes a lot of preparation. I’m not going to have that time to prepare [now]. So it’s going to be a mix, at this time – we’re going to pull from all of the albums.

Your work with The Chameleons gets a lot of attention, but you’ve been involved in so many projects over the years, not just The Chameleons. Which ones do you wish would get more notice?

MARK BURGESS: I did an album called Venus [with the band Invincible], and I really liked that record. But it hit a lot of snags, it wasn’t properly released, so it’s largely unknown. I think that my contribution to that was my best work outside The Chameleons. But that was just unfortunate music business bullshit with the publisher and the label and whatnot. In terms of from an audience point of view, it doesn’t really bother me – it’s understandable, because when I was in The Chameleons, it was very much a collaboration of four very talented people, and it’s going to be the strongest thing that I’ve ever been part of. I get frustrated, a little bit, at people who listen to something that I’ve done outside The Chameleons, and their first reaction is, “Oh, it isn’t The Chameleons,” as if it’s some kind of criticism. And to me, that is really stupid, because obviously it’s not The Chameleons, The Chameleons didn’t make it! [laughs] Do you know what I mean? It’s like pointing at a Paul McCartney album and saying, “Well, it’s not The Beatles, is it?” No! [laughs] And it can’t be, can it? No. So I just wish that people were a bit more mindful and a bit more respectful, in that sense. I do the other projects because they interest me. I get invited to do them – I don’t really instigate, I don’t start new projects. Doing a project like Black Swan Lane, it’s because they’ve asked me to take part, and I found it interesting enough to do it. And that’s still happening. I have a couple of things at the moment that people have asked me to get involved with. One is a production thing down in Florida, a studio, a label called Farmadelica Sound, he wants me to work at the studio and whatnot; that’s quite interesting. And I have another thing based in Chicago, kind of like a mass collaboration thing, which I don’t know if I’ll do or not yet. But they’re interesting invites. So whether people prefer them to Chameleons, it’s neither here nor there to me because I’m not doing it to court popularity, I’m doing it because they’re projects that interest me on a creative label. And I understand that The Chameleons was an extraordinary thing to be part of – the impact that the music had, the quality of the music that we were making, the whole nature of the band. Its popularity in Europe and in the United States was a surprise. It’s one of those things where you’re in a band like that, you’re never going to repeat that. It was a conjunction of things that happened that made that band and that music possible that might happen to a person once in a lifetime. It’s nice that I have a number of people – not all of them, by any stretch – but a number of people that like The Chameleons seem to like other things that I do, as well, and that is good because it enables me to keep doing it. But I don’t get hung up on people liking The Chameleons more. I think it’s an unfair comparison; I think it’s like comparing one person out of a four-piece band and saying, “It’s not as good, it’s not as strong” – it’s not going to be, it’s never going to be. I didn’t write all the music – I did contribute in arranging and writing, obviously, [and] I did the melodies and the words. Reg Smithies and Dave did the guitar arrangements, and we all worked with John on the drums. That’s a collaboration of four people making that music; I didn’t do it on my own. So to expect me to match that on my own is just ridiculous, because I just can’t. I’ve had a situation, like with The Sun and the Moon, that didn’t really last very long because I realized they wanted to be The Chameleons, basically. And I’ve been there and I’ve done that, so I thought, either take it in a different direction, or don’t do it at all, because I don’t want to be copying. People say I’m in a cover band now, but I’m singing my tunes. You don’t cover yourself, do you? But I have had it said that it’s a Chameleons tribute band. It’s like, fuck off, you know.

You’ve had a loyal fanbase for a long time now, but it seems like you’re also winning over a new generation of fans…

MARK BURGESS: Well, that’s the thing that I cannot get my head ‘round. Like, I played a show last year, and a couple of guys of 15 or 16 years old came over to get a record signed after the show. And they’re raving about it, saying, “We absolutely love this album, we had to hear you perform it.” And I didn’t say it, because I thought it might be a condescending thing to say to them, but I’m thinking, “Jesus, these guys weren’t even born when I made this music, and here they are really being excited about it.” That’s obviously really pleasing and unexpected. Honestly, it never would’ve entered my head at the time that people would pay me to play this music 35 years later. It’s not something that I even dared contemplate.

Chameleons songs are so distinctive – the way you put your dark lyrics over such atmospheric music. How did you come up with such a unique sound in the first place?

MARK BURGESS: The guitar sound evolved over quite a short period of time. If you hear us when we first started figuring it out, you get a hint of the way we sounded. Listen to the first John Peel [BBC radio] session – that was the tail end of our absolute beginning, and we were still trying to find our sound a little bit. But we didn’t really take very long. By the time we got into the studio with [producer] Steve Lillywhite, we pretty much had it, which was maybe only four or five months, if that, after we did the session for John Peel. Obviously, when you start, you’re piecing together your sound with whatever you can afford: you have a guitar that you can afford, you have an amp that you can afford, you might have a couple of effects that you can afford. Soon as you get signed to a label, you’ve got money to go out and buy better gear, so your sound is going to get better, it’s going to evolve, if you’ve got your ear to the ground and know what’s out there in terms of crafting guitar sounds. You’ve got the ability to go out, try it, buy it, plug it in and use it. So that very much influenced the evolution of the sound, and it was very quick. And then the other part of our sound was an accident, because the one thing that we didn’t think about buying were tuners. We used to tune our instruments by ear. And when we went in the studio with the producer, he said to use electronic tuners, and we found out we were six semitones above concert pitch, which is six notches higher than it should’ve been – and that’s the reason why we kept breaking strings. But because we were tuning higher, we were getting these harmonics off the reverbs that helped make the sound big – and when we used the tuners to tune properly, we lost them. It affected the sound. Consequently, we played around with the tuning and if we found if we took it two notches up, we still got our harmonics that we’d lost, but we weren’t snapping as many strings. So we compromised on two semitones above concert. And with the reverbs that we had at the time, it gave it this big cathedral type vibe whenever the guitars were going for it. And the darkness of the lyrics, all I can say is, I was more punk than any of them. They all liked punk, kind of, but I was actually a punk – I was into punk music and everything that punk music said. I was a bit of an idealist in that respect, a bit naïve. I believed in everything that punk was saying. I remember reading an article with Patti Smith in the NME which I never forgot. She said, “If you’re fortunate enough to get to make a record, then as an artist it’s your moral duty to use that as a vehicle to actually say something that’s relevant, that matters.” And I thought that was a totally cool quote. I completely related to that. So I tried to have that approach with everything that I did with Chameleons; I tried to make it relevant. And because my writing reflects my situation, my environment, I suppose coming from Manchester, it has the tradition of being quite dark and gloomy. It’s different here now, it’s not the same anymore – I don’t even recognize Manchester anymore. There’s one little part that hasn’t changed. The rest of it, all the places I used to go are all gone, built over or gentrified in some way. There’s still good music coming out of it, I’m sure, but the Manchester I’m referring to is long gone.

You’re still based in Manchester when you’re not touring?

MARK BURGESS: Yeah, this is the longest period that I’ve had in Manchester for a very, very long time. But for about 20 years, I wasn’t here. I lived in Hamburg for a long time, and I loved it there, but circumstances happened, personal things happened, and I ended up leaving and coming back. And I lived in Scotland for a number of years. I’ve been in some strange places. I’ve been back in Manchester for maybe about five or six years now. This has been really hard on me, because I am nomadic, I like to travel as much as possible. Not with touring – touring is a very different thing, it’s work and you don’t really get to see very much. It’s motel, stage, some fast food place maybe, and then another motel and another venue. It’s interesting – it’s an experience, but you don’t get to soak anything up, really. But I’d do a tour in Europe, and once that was completed and there was no more work for me to do here, I’d come to America and breeze around for 90 days. That was really painful for me, having that stopped. It’s like having your wings clipped.

But sometimes it seems like traveling can also be potentially dangerous – like when you described in your autobiography [View From A Hill, originally published in 2007 by Guardian Angel Press, and revised/reprinted in 2015 by Mittens On] about when you lived in Israel and fell in with people who might’ve been doing criminal things. Maybe you got lucky, getting out of there before anything bad happened.

MARK BURGESS: Yeah, I don’t think it occurred to me, really. It’s hard to imagine it now, but at the time, it was volatile there, that nature of the place was bubbling under. But I don’t really believe in luck or coincidence. I had the experience that I needed to have, that’s the way that I look at it. It was a very significant experience, and particularly poignant in many ways. I felt that something was looking out for me. There’s always that question about whether or not I was being paranoid, or if the threat that I was perceiving was very real. It seemed very real. And because I was traveling with somebody that I was kind of taking care of, I wasn’t going to take that chance, I wasn’t gonna gamble that I was being paranoid, I was going to act on my instincts. My gut was telling me to get the fuck out of there.

You also wrote about taking an office job working for the Manchester City football club about 25 years ago, which was amusing to read because it’s hard to picture you doing that!

MARK BURGESS: [laughs] It was an interesting experience. My plan was to do drama at Manchester Polytechnic, and then I fell in with The Chameleons, and I had to make a choice. And I made it, and my life was changed completely. So that [Manchester City football club job] was the first time that I’d ever actually taken a 9 to 5 job. I’d never done it before. So from that point of view, it was really interesting. I don’t think I could’ve done it if it had been about double glazing, you know – it had to be something that I was passionate about. And I only did it casually in the beginning, because I came back to Manchester from Scotland and I couldn’t get tickets to the game anymore. I’d let my season ticket go, and all my contacts that I had, God knows where they were. So when this thing came up saying, “We’re looking for help in the ticket office,” I’m like, “Perfect, because then I won’t have to worry about getting tickets.” And it worked like a charm! And a couple of my heroes from when I was a kid were still working at the club. It was great to meet them.

There are people who get excited about meeting you like that, it seems…

MARK BURGESS: I don’t understand that at all. I kind of understand getting starstruck meeting people like David Bowie or Freddie Mercury, but I don’t understand anybody getting starstruck with me, just a dead ordinary person. [laughs] I should be more rock and roll and not give a fuck, I know that, but I’m not like that – I do give a fuck and I don’t want people to walk out disappointed by the show. As long as they’re aware of what it is they’re walking into. I’m not trying to pass myself off as, “I am The Chameleons.” I’m just trying to perform this music as powerfully as I can for people that want to actually hear it live. It’s exciting for me that Reg is going to be stepping back into the band this year – Reg is the guy that I wrote a lot of the stuff with, the core writing was me and Reg. Dave was massively important, obviously, don’t get me wrong. But a lot of those ideas for a lot of those songs started with me and Reg, and then Dave would come and elevate them, because he was great at that.

What’s your day to day life like, when you’re not on the road?

MARK BURGESS: I’ll go down to my manager’s and we’ll either work on the van, or we just launched a merchandising thing [via www.chameleonsmark.com] so I’ve been working on that a lot. Or I’ll be off doing a lot of traveling around. And writing songs. Now that me and Reg have been working together again, I’m hoping that’ll come to fruition and that we’re gonna get more time and space to do that.

Would that be under The Chameleons name?

MARK BURGESS: With Reg in the band, it’s Chameleons. When I’m working as ChameleonsVox on my own, it means “the voice of The Chameleons, singer of The Chameleons.” But with Reg, out of the three Chameleons left [John Lever passed away in 2017], two of them are in the band, so when we go out playing Chameleons music, it will be Chameleons [on the bill]. But I don’t know if the new stuff will be as The Chameleons – we’ll have to write it first and then figure that out. And of course, now that I’ve got my visa, I want to make a record in the United States, because I’ve never done that. I’ve recorded radio sessions there, but I’ve never made a record. Like I said, Farmadelica down in Florida, I think I’ll try that and see how that goes, and even get Reg over, maybe! But yeah, absolutely, it’s been a long, long time – I haven’t worked with him on music since 2002. It’s gonna be good, I think!

ChameleonsVox and Theatre of Hate (with Jay Aston of Gene Loves Jezebel on several dates) will tour the United States throughout October and November, 2019.