Mark Burgess is one of the most poignant songwriters of the last few decades and still manages to give a moving performance years after the formation of his legendary band, The Chameleons. I was lucky enough to witness one of his performances recently at Show Cave, in Eagle Rock, CA. It was a beautiful, acoustic set and accompanying him on stage were Andru Aesthetik and Justin Lomery, two local musicians who also joined Burgess at The Echo last summer. The hour and a half set featured songs from the entire Chameleons catalogue and fans listened quietly as Burgess sang heart-wrenching, but comforting words about pleasure and pain. The acoustic nature of the set was perfect for songs like “Second Skin” and “Nostalgia”, but still managed to capture the energy of a fan favorite like “Swamp Thing.” Months later, I was able to ask Burgess a few questions about playing with local musicians all over the globe, and how his songs make him feel today:
Aida: You’ve been playing shows with fans from all over. It must feel great to meet musicians who know & love your songs to that extent. I’m assuming they already know the songs fairly well, being big fans, but how much rehearsing is involved before you take the stage with them?
Mark Burgess: It is great actually. The thing is, they play the material with so much passion, that it feels really great to play with them. I have to say it was a passion that was often missing with the original line-up a lot of the time. And yeah I’ve been performing this stuff for a long time, so they have the task of getting me to the level I need to be at to perform the songs with the conviction that they need, and thus far the people I’ve played with have managed that. Course in Europe I’ve got the Chameleons drummer to drive the set, which is a major plus and I tend to rehearse with his band, Bushart, more often. Out here there hasn’t been that much chance to rehearse with the band ahead of the shows. Much of the work was done in my absence and then I’d spend a couple of days refining the arrangements, which differ a little from the recordings.
A: How does it feel to play all the Chameleons songs now? Does it take you back to where you were when you first wrote them or are they taking on new meanings?
MB: It feels great to perform them, as I say the band’s passion and commitment really make the arrangements feel fresh and new, and to me at least a lot if not all of the themes seem more relevant to me now than they did when we first wrote the songs. The themes of alienation especially, seem more poignant these days than they did back then and a lot of younger people seem to relate to them very strongly.
A: Though there is a darkness to your music, of all the 80’s bands of this nature, I find The Chameleons to be the most optimistic. Would you agree with that? If so, was that intentional? One of my favorite things about your songs is the lyrics. Your words are some of the most powerful I’ve heard or read. I find them to be beautiful and comforting. Though you discuss pain and despair, you also give a sense of hope. Do the words mostly come from experience or do you create characters and stories?
MB: Well I’m not an overly pessimistic person, I never have been. So it was always a bit of a tug on the soul when we’d get described as being depressing or something. I’ve always been able to see the light in every dark experience I’ve encountered. It’s not something I consciously thought about when I was writing them. I write very instinctively anyway, I don’t think too much when I’m doing it, I just let it happen and then later on I can look back on it with the perspective of hindsight and see things very clearly in terms of where they’ve come from. Yeah all my lyrics are derived from a direct experience of life.
A: Were you a fan of a lot of the music that came out of Manchester? Who inspired you when you started The Chameleons? Who inspires you now?
MB: Well when we came together we’d all been listening to different records most of our lives and they were largely very different and diverse from each other, although obviously there was also a lot of common threads there, such as the sixties stuff like Beatles and Doors, early glam records from the likes of Bowie and T.Rex, and finally Punk. I think if we were to talk about Manchester influences specifically, speaking personally, I would say The Fall, or more precisely Mark. E Smith is the one Manchester figure that I admire the most and relate to the most. While we’re very different in terms of personality and themes, I feel a kinship in that he’s a very real persona. What you see is absolutely real on stage and off, and I like to think I share that characteristic. I’ve never been so insecure with myself, or about myself, to feel the need to create a stage persona that’s separate from who I am. And I feel Mark has been the same in that respect.
A: It seems that you’ve been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles recently. A lot of people have a negative view of L.A. What are your views of the city?
MB: There are negative and positive aspects of every major city I think. LA differs in that it attracts people that are very career motivated, being the entertainment capital of the western world. I like it here because I like the people that I count as friends, they’re very cool people and not in the least ‘Hollywoodised’. I don’t think I could live here ALL the time, there’s a certain lethargy here at street level, and an over preoccupation with self promotion and ‘cool’, which of course when patronized, is anything but. Overall though I enjoy being here for spells if I’m working and I love performing here. When I’m not working I tend to get restless here and want to move on for a while.
A: Tell me about your recently released book, View From A Hill. What provoked you to write an autobiography?
MB: Well the book began as little more than a writing exercise way back when I got my first computer. I just wanted to get used to using one and so I just started writing. I let it slip in a couple of interviews after being asked if I’d ever consider writing a book, and then people began writing to me urging me to complete it and publish it. I’d work on it ever now and again during slow periods and was only seriously motivated to publish it when my father was diagnosed with a terminal disease. I wanted him to read it before he died, which he did and he loved it. I enjoyed writing it and it’s something I’ll continue with in some vein. It deals with growing up in Manchester in the 60’s and 70’s, the Punk explosion and Post Punk Manchester scene, the evolution and lifespan of The Chameleons, and ends with some esoteric stuff that I wanted my dad to read. The first edition was hard back and sold out very quickly, so there’s going to be a paperback version released by a U.S. publisher this week. Anyone interested should go to http://www.chameleonsbook.com for details on how to get it.
A: Are you working on any new projects, and can we expect a new release from you in the near future?
MB: Well I’ve been accumulating ideas and songs for quite a while but haven’t really fell into the right set of circumstances that would allow me to develop them, but I’m hoping that next year I can start putting new songs down, then I’ll see what I have and whether it’s worth putting them out and playing them. There will be more ChameleonsVox shows next I would think. There’s this place out at Joshua Tree where I’d like us to give a special performance of ‘Script of the Bridge’.
I’d like to get back to writing pros. I’ve thought about a traveling book around which to hang various themes, possibly back to Jerusalem and revisit the episode that forms the middle of ‘View From A Hill’, from the perspective of 30 years on. I’d also like to get back into the arena of the UFO mystery somehow, or rather the push for governmental disclosure on the subject in a more direct way, and do some wider traveling. I’d like to go to Egypt for example and examine the Great Pyramid at Giza close up, which is something I’ve never done.
Mark is playing a number of shows in the next couple of weeks and his book, View From A Hill is now available for purchase. For more info: http://www.chameleonsbook.com/