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Chameleons - Where Are You? (EP) (Metropolis)

19 May 2024

Though Chameleons fans have enjoyed many tours over the years to keep the post-punk flame alive, they’ve also long been “swamped” (sorry, not sorry) by myriad re-issues with very little in the way of actual new music. For those keeping score, it’s been 11 years since “M + D = 1 (8) (EP)” (Blue Apple, 2013).

The time is right for new music, says Mark Burgess, who still fronts the Middleton, Manchester band. And with his original bandmate, Reg Smithies back by his side on guitar, he no longer needs his band name, Chameleons Vox. Once again Chameleons, the current band fills out with Stephen Rice (guitar), Danny Ashberry (keyboards), and Todd Demma (drums).

The new 3-track “Where Are You?” EP out on Metropolis is perhaps a taster for the full LP in progress. It features two new songs: one very punchy and one mellow slow-burner. It also includes an vibrant revisit to a song Mark and the original band wrote 43 years ago.

I asked Mark to tell me more about the songs. Let’s go through them.

First up is the EP’s title track, “Where Are You?” The Chameleons have often enjoyed and employed playful questioning record names, so this is a nice little nod to the past. But musically this tune is very different, at least at first, from past music. I think of some of Mark’s heroes like Bowie and Bolan. Unlike most Chameleons music, reverb is set to zero and the music is brash, bold, raw. Mark’s vocal is emotive and maybe a bit softer than his occasional snarls on gems like “Mad Jack”.

The first two minutes are gorgeously loud post-punk goodness. But then a breath comes, and spacey keyboards appear. I dig this! Thrashing guitars return and sing-a-long moments follow. We’re treated to a few final moments with somewhat reminiscent Chameleons guitars. In some ways it’s odd to only hear them now, but it’s kind of like the band is saying, “yeah, we’ve got those familiar guitars, but we’re more about this sound these days.”

David: How much does it matter to you to reference touchstones of your sound the way fans know it?

Mark: “It doesn’t matter to us at all. In fact, I was determined that it would be a break from what has previously been a recognized cornerstone of the band’s sound. Firstly, because we want to take the band forward. We want to progress. The band sounding [like we did] 20, 30, or 40 years ago wasn’t interesting to us, or the least bit satisfying. We [also] didn’t want to trade on the guitar sound that wasn’t ours. What I mean by that is the contribution to that [by original guitarist, Dave Fielding] was very important, obviously, but he left years ago. It’s his sound, not ours. We wanted the sound of the band to reflect the band that was actually making this record. I think we succeeded on both counts.”

David: Are you or Reg conscious in the songwriting/arranging with the new music of sometimes wanting to add more or possibly take away sounds that seem too “Chameleon-esque”? It must be challenging .

Mark: “I thought it would be challenging, I thought it would be a long and hard experimentation process, but actually it was the opposite. All of the necessary components are in place with regards the membership. Danny on keyboards, Todd on drums, Stephen moving from Vox drum stool to his preferred instrument, guitar, and my old writing partner, Reg. They brought their ‘A’ game to the recording session. Everybody contributed either to arrangements or parts. It all flows very effortlessly and very easily and we’re all very excited by the results.”

“Endless Falling” is next up. Longtime fans will recognize this one. The original version of this band-produced 1981 song appeared on ”The Fan And The Bellows” (Hybrid, 1986) release, which pulled together early demos and recordings before the first full LP. But, this isn’t the same song, is it? It starts with a nice little passage of “I’m falling” harmony vocals backed by bass and staccato guitars and drums. Suddenly, yes yes yes, this is the same song, revisited 43 years later and delivered with a fresher, fuller sound and its trademark post-punk edge is still mostly intact. A groovy new bit at the end is a nice surprise.

David: Why choose to re-record this long-lost 43-year-old tune? Was this song a good opportunity to sort of get into the DNA groove of what “Chameleons” are trying to manifest with the new songs here and that will appear on the future LP, “Arctic Moon”?

Mark: “Well, that’s quite an interesting thing. It started with two nights at the Ritz in Manchester, where we performed the history of The Chameleons over both nights. So, I wanted to take some of the songs that were never finished, or barely finished, or finished, and include them in this history set. Consequently, we really enjoyed working on them, so I suggested that we record them, and the reasons were two-fold. In the first place, I felt that it would get the band up and running in the studio to do something familiar, so we weren’t sitting around waiting for ideas to happen. Once they were recorded, we felt that they sounded so good. We wanted to put them out. I have a friend in Berlin called Philipp Strobel, and he has an underground vinyl record label in Berlin and he happened to ask me if I had anything by Chameleons that he could release on his label. I think he expected me to say no, but actually we’d started work on these six legacy tracks, so I gave him the pick of five from the six that we recorded. The name of the label is Aufnahme Und Weidergabe and the other five tracks will be released by him later this year on his label. These tracks are: ‘The Fan & The Bellows’, ‘Things I Wish I’d Said’, ‘Everyday I’m Crucified’, ‘Nostalgia’, and ‘Nathan’s Phase.’ We kept ‘Endlessly Falling’ back as the b-side of the new EP.”

“Forever”…starts rather Baroquely. The guitars are angelic, setting the stage for a mellow, loungey tune. Picture a smoke-filled club at 2am, spotlight set on Mark as he sings from a stool. Acoustic tunes aren’t new to Chameleons fans, as Mark has sung a few on Chameleons and The Sun and the Moon records, as well acoustic version LPs ”This Never Ending Now” and ”Strip”. But what is new and exciting here is that this tune has more soulfulness baked into it. It’s partly the guitars but equally Mark’s vocal, which is cadenced, annunciated, and frankly more alive than ever.

He sings ‘every second of life, every moment of your life, stretches forever’, which hints at The Chameleons’ stunner, “Intrigue in Tangiers” (“every second that you cling to life. You have to feel alive.”)

David: Will the new LP feature more of this kind of vibe? I’m definitely intrigued.

Mark: “Well, the album is only half finished. We’re gonna reconvene in July to finish it although we already have an album worth of material. It looks like we’re going to have more material than we actually need for the album, so we decide on the final order once everything is done. All of the songs are very unique to themselves in the tradition of Chameleons albums, and all of them show a marked maturity in terms of the songwriting in our view. We’re very excited by it, which is the criteria that we’ve always used in our records right from the very beginning. Both Reg and I have said to each other, we both feel that it’s the best record either of us worked up until now. That’s the most important thing to us that we’re excited by it, at least as far as we are concerned. We previewed one of the big songs from the album at a recent acoustic show to some diehard long-term Chameleons fans and I’ve played the single to other long-term die hard Chameleons fans and the response has been unanimously positive up until now. I also feel that it’s gonna bring a lot of new listeners to the band as well simply for the progression in terms of sound and songwriting. So, hopefully when we reconvene to finish, it will continue in the same vein.”

Starting in San Diego, a 26-date North American tour kicks off May 30th where the band will be playing ”Strange Times”.

David: Do you plan to also play a smattering of other Chameleons tunes including new music?

Mark: “Oh yes, I mean of course we’re going to continue to play legacy songs. That’s for sure. I mean with The Chameleons we’re going to continue to play our music, yeah, but we will also want to take the band forward. We feel now that we can do that. So, I suppose what we play will consist of those absolute classics we can’t avoid playing, and other songs that maybe we didn’t play so much sit better with the [new] material, and some new songs.”

The new EP was produced by Christophe Bride and The Chameleons and mastered by Guy Massey. It will be released on May 24 via Metropolis Records in conjunction with Strange Times Entertainment and is available for pre-sale/pre-save or via bandcamp. See links below.

David: Anything else you’d like to briefly tell fans?

Mark: “Only were looking forward to performing ”Strange Times” in America because it’s a challenging record to do live. And that makes it fun to do. Plus, it was a very popular album in the United States, and we’ve never done it there [unless you saw the tour in early 1987 as I did!] It’ll be the first tour we’re performing in the week of a brand new single, so obviously we wanna play that and promote that. If you wanna hear it actually played live by the actual Chameleons as they are now, this is a good opportunity for you.”